What Defense Should You Teach Youth Players (Zone, Man, Press)??

Home > Coaching > Coaching Youth Basketball > What Defense Should You Teach Youth Players (Zone, Man, Press)??

First, we commend all youth coaches for taking up such an important role in developing children! In the grand scheme of things, what defense or offense you pick doesn't matter in regards to how we develop the children's character on the teams that we coach.

Second, I think we can all agree that we want to develop better basketball players for the future and we want what is best for them.

Now, one of the most-debated topics is what defense should we teach youth players? Zone, Match Up, Pressing, Man, Amoeba?

The answer is without a doubt man-to-man defense! I can promise you that in the long-run, you will develop better basketball players by playing man to man defense.

Man To Man Defense Will Help You Win More Games In The Long Run and Develop Better Players

At times, you may not win as many games at first, but I guarantee you start winning more games by the 7th and 8th grade as long as the man to man defense principles are properly taught.

And the chances of those players making their high school teams will be dramatically higher.

The feeling of seeing players succeeding at higher levels, because of the foundation you set as a coach is so much more rewarding than winning a few more games at the youth level that you and the players will forget about after a few years.

If you use zone defenses and presses, while you read this article, please remember that we're not judging you or trying to be condescending by any means, because we've used zone defenses and presses at the youth level as well. But we feel like that was a mistake when it came to developing the players that we coached. And we all want what's best for the kids.

We hope that you read the entire article and share your thoughts below even if you disagree with our points. We want this to be a community where we debate things in a positive, constructive way and come to a better understanding of these issues.

Now before we delve into all of the reasons that you should play man to man defense at the youth level, let's examine why youth coaches typically go to zones, presses, and other defenses, the systemic issues, and why zone defenses and zone presses work.

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 level.

Under the current system in the U.S., 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.

If we are concerned with the long-term development of youth basketball players, they should not even be playing 5v5 with the same rules as high school and NBA teams. As we've been saying all along, young kids should start out playing 3v3 half court, then 4v4, then 5v5. I first heard this from my high school coach 15 years ago. This is something that I've seen youth expert Bob Bigelow and many other great coaches preach for years. Not to mention, we introduce the game to kids before they are taught how to move efficiently.

As Bob Bigelow likes to say, "Adapt the game to fit the kids. Not the other way around."

Even the NBA & USA Basketball put out guidelines that eliminate the use of zone defenses before the age of 12.

If you would like to read more in depth on the systemic issues, please read these articles:

Could 3 on 3 Basketball Be the Best for Youth Players?

What's Wrong With Youth Basketball Leagues (And How To Fix Them)

Should We Teach Basketball Skills to Kids Under the Age of 10?

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.
  • Opposing coaches don't have enough practice time to cover all of the situations.
  • Unlike man to man defense, you don't even have to apply good defensive principles to be effective at the youth level.

Why Teaching Zone Defense Can Handicap Your Youth Players' Future and Why Man to Man Defense Is The Best Defense For Youth Players

1 - Develop Athleticism

Something I rarely hear coaches talk about in the man to man versus zone defense debate for youth players is athleticism.

Now who is going to develop into a better athlete?

Somebody who has to move all over the floor using many different movement patterns or a defender in a zone whom only has to guard in a 7x7 feet box. Also, in a zone defense, defenders are typically stuck in the post area or perimeter area. So they don't learn post and perimeter defense.

Now, you might argue that you don't use a lazy zone or that you have a trapping zone and that your players run all over the place.

Well, as a person that studies athletic development both as a hobby and as a basketball coach, I can tell you that even aggressive zone defenses do NOT develop athleticism the way man to man defense does.

Let's take your centers and/or forwards that you have towards the back of the zone as an example. (And by the way, these "big" players probably need to work on foot coordination and athleticism more than anyone). Just look at their feet as they play in the back of the zone. They rarely have to move quickly, get down in low stance, or transition from shuffle to cross over defensive movements. This changing from run, to shuffle, to cross over, is incredible for athletic development. This is one of the best things you can do. Their legs get stronger, faster, more coordinated, and more athletic.

And let's pretend that you even rotate your big guys to the front of the zone trapping to develop their athleticism, you still won't develop the same athleticism as playing man to man defense. With straight up man to man defense, you have to play 1v1 on-ball defense. There is nobody to trap or bail you out, except for help defense. So you have to move faster, work harder and smarter, and react quicker to keep the ball in front of you or out of the middle of the court.

Not to mention, the zone at the youth level usually forms bad habits. You'll find that players in trapping and pressing defenses will form bad habits, because they can get away with things defensively such as lunging out of position, constantly going for steals, and reaching all of the time. It's very hard to break these habits and in some cases, it doesn't happen. So in my opinion, this can wreck a player's basketball career if not approached properly.

Also, how many times have you seen a player who is extremely skilled get passed on for being not athletic enough? Now how many times do you see college coaches attempt to develop athletes who are not very skilled?

If you've been around the game, you know that many coaches are more willing to take a chance on an athlete who isn't very skilled compared to a skilled basketball player who isn't athletic. I'm not downplaying the importance of basketball skills. Developing basketball skills is super-important, but you also need to spend a considerable amount of time on developing athleticism.

If you don't believe me, go watch some NAIA and Division 3 games. These kids are skilled! They just aren't as big and as athletic as the D-2 and D-1 guys. Some of this is genetics. Some of this is a faulty athletic development system in the U.S.

Bottom line, this argument alone would deter me away from zone defenses, because of my background and belief that athleticism is so important not only in the game of basketball, but in all sports.

This is one of my favorite drills for developing basketball skills and athleticism: https://www.breakthroughbasketball.com/drills/1on1-defense.html

Al Marshall is one of the best zone defense coaches in the world (if you don't believe me, just check out the reviews on his zone defense DVD). He uses the drill above every 2 to 3 practices because of its tremendous value to improving on-ball defense and athleticism.

Since we're talking about Coach Marshall, I figure we'd also mention that even Al does not allow his youth teams to play zone defense.

2 - Players Develop A Better Basketball IQ Playing Man to Man Defense

One of the reasons I'm a big believer in motion offense is because I think it develops smarter basketball players and I'm a fan of man to man defense for the same reason.

Who is going to develop a better feel for the game?

Player A shuffles back and forth between two spots and only learns to defend on one part of the floor.

Player B who is transitioning to different spots on the floor and learning to defend screens, cutters, post players, ball handlers, shooters, etc.

Obviously, it's Player B. The more situations the player faces and the more repetitions the player gets in those situations with proper coaching and feedback will result in a better and smarter basketball player.

Now if Player B heads to a program that plays zone defense, they will be a very effective defender.

3 - Players Form Bad Defensive Habits By Using Zone Defenses and Presses

As mentioned above, a big problem with zone defenses and presses is that many youth coaches allow their players to develop bad defensive habits. Because youth players have not developed their coordination, strength, basketball skills, and general athleticism, 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. They HAVE to learn good defensive principles in order to be successful!

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. 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. As mentioned above, Al Marshall does the same thing.

Arguments For Zone Defenses At The Youth Level

Zone Defense Isn't The Problem - Lack of Defensive Fundamentals Are The Problem

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 60 feet, 6 inches, 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.

Players Can't Advance the Ball Against Aggressive Man to Man Defense

I agree that if you play a super-athletic team that plays aggressive man to man defense, you can have more problems with this team than if they had played a zone defense. I think there are two solutions here.

  1. If the coach is winning by a lot, they should call off the dogs. Don't let them defend outside the 3-point line or play a zone defense if they think that would help. That is what I have done in a few games where we ran into this problem.

  2. Find equal competition. It's senseless for both teams to play a game where you win or lose by 40+ points. I realize that I'm spoiled because I coach in Kansas City, so it's easier to find similar competition due to the large population, but do your best to find teams that will be productive to play against. When I organized my first youth league in small-town Iowa at age 22, I called local teams with similar skill levels and organized a 6-team league.

These Kids Will Never Play Basketball Beyond Middle School or High School

Basketball is one of the latest developing sports. Unless you can see the future, I don't believe anybody can truly figure out who is going to develop into a good basketball player or not. Here are just a few reasons why:

  • Late growth spurts

    See Michael Jordan - grew 6 inches between sophomore and junior season in high school.
    See Scottie Pippen - grew 6 inches in college.
    See Bill Russell - was 5'10 in the 10th grade.
    See Shaquille O'Neal - cut from 9th grade basketball team for being too clumsy.

    These are just a few examples. As I'm sure with a little research, you would find many more in basketball and other sports.

  • Passion and hard work. Sometimes, passion and hard work for something will take players a lot further than somebody who is a little bit more naturally talented. Believe it or not, in this start earlier and do-more-at-younger-age era, it's not what you do prior to puberty that counts, it's what you do post-puberty that's going to make the biggest difference in your basketball development. Steve Nash didn't start playing until age 12. Dirk Nowitzki started around the same age.

Build a Winning Tradition

At some schools, coaches have the challenge of building a program. Maybe the team has lost at all levels from varsity to youth for a long time. Due to this, excitement about the program is low to put it kindly and participation is low. In order to create a buzz and get kids involved, you need to use some tactics such as zone defenses and zone presses that might help you win more games.

This one is hard for me to argue with. However, you want to be careful. You would still need to make sure proper defensive principles and basketball skills are being worked on in every practice. Otherwise, the situation could be a catch-22. You might start winning more games at the youth level and get more involvement, but due to the bad habits being formed, you still don't win many more games at the varsity level.

Also, maybe you want to develop a "winning" attitude. This also needs to be handled with care, because what is the underlying message that is or is NOT being communicated. It could be harder to convey that working hard, doing the right thing, and avoiding quick-fixes will be better for you in the long-run.

The Zone Defense Gives Our Kids A Chance To Compete

I know some coaches that teach man to man defense, but will use a zone defense against a team that is far superior with talent. This one doesn't really bother me as much as long as the team doesn't get in the habit of playing zone defense every game.

I prefer to try a sagging / pack-line type defense to counter the more athletic teams. If I still have lots of trouble, I MIGHT use a zone defense.

They Have To Learn How To Play Against Pressure and Zones When They're Older So They Should Be Playing Against It Now

Yes. I think we can all agree that they will play according to those rules when they get older, but is that really the right approach?

Kids also may need to learn how to drive a car, learn calculus, and learn how to raise a family and communicate with their spouse, but we're not going to throw them the keys and have them get in LA rush hour at age 10, we're not going to teach them calculus before they understand basic math, geometry, and algebra, and we're definitely not going to tell our 12 year old kid to go start a family.

It's all about progressions and doing what's right for their long-term development. Presses and zones are advanced basketball strategies and need to be saved for the older age groups.

Now, I don't have issues with teaching zone defenses to 7th and 8th grade teams. To me, that's more of a to-ma-to / to-mah-to issue. Younger kids from the 3rd to 6th grade levels, they need to learn how to play the game, physically develop, and psychologically develop before zone defenses and presses are used.

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.

Even though it takes effort, discipline, and time, man to man defense is by far the best route to go in developing players.

Among many other things, it improves athleticism, basketball IQ, basketball skills, and the athlete's chances to succeed at the next level.

Defense Solutions & Resources:

Man to Man Defense with Jim Huber -- DVD 4-Pack & eBooks

Keith Haske's Uptempo Basketball System - Pressure Defense, Pressure Offense

Al Marshall's Aggressive 2-3 Zone Defense

Don Kelbick's Match Up Zone Defense

What do you think? Let us know by leaving your comments, suggestions, and questions...


Most Likes First   Oldest First   Newest First

Coach says:
1/22/2022 at 10:07:44 AM

Thank you, thank you, thank you. This is the best article I've ever read. I coach 3rd and 4th grade and there has been a lot of disagreements over man vs zone. I'm a firm believer in teaching man at this age and this article confirmed everything I believed, plus gave me more arguing points. Thank you to the authors.


Coach says:
1/22/2022 at 10:07:37 AM

Thank you, thank you, thank you. This is the best article I've ever read. I coach 3rd and 4th grade and there has been a lot of disagreements over man vs zone. I'm a firm believer in teaching man at this age and this article confirmed everything I believed, plus gave me more arguing points. Thank you to the authors.


Emily says:
2/23/2021 at 1:46:38 PM

Thanks for this article. I am coaching my daughters 1/2 grade league and their is a lot of conflict about zone vs m2m. Zone is not permitted and color wristbands are used for m2m. We are doing full court 5-5 with 4 running clock quarters. When the girls are playing m2m, they are all running around like chickens with their heads cut off. Offense cannot pass the ball as they can never see past their opponent and when they do, it results in a steal 99% of the time, resulting in a "fast break" which is almost never covered, because that person isn''t their "color" to guard. Stealing a pass or dribble is against the rules, but not enforced. They guard their color opponent and turn their backs to the ball even when the ball is nowhere near them. So, reading this article leads me to believe the 5-5 full court is probably the biggest mistake our league is doing? What kind of offense do you suggest if our league doesn''t make changes? Just to keep practicing skills and "try to get open"? Thanks in advance for your feedback!

  1 reply  

Jeff Haefner says:
2/23/2021 at 5:49:26 PM

My kids did not play 5v5 until late 3rd or 4th grade. And I thought that was still too early. 3v3 is much better for this age.

Also, small sided games are great for development... 1v1, 2v1, 3v1, 3v2, 3v3. As you eluded to, 5v5 is a bit of a joke at these ages. You could run a 5 out pass and cut... but it's a bit of a waste of time. Focus on teaching skills, having fun, and playing small sided games.

With small sided games, players get more touches and have more opportunities to apply their skills both offensively and defensively.

Hope this helps.


Emily says:
2/23/2021 at 1:30:50 PM

Thanks for this article. I am coaching my daughters 1/2 grade league and their is a lot of conflict about zone vs m2m. Zone is not permitted and color wristbands are used for m2m. We are doing full court 5-5 with 4 running clock quarters. When the girls are playing m2m, they are all running around like chickens with their heads cut off. Offense cannot pass the ball as they can never see past their opponent and when they do, it results in a steal 99% of the time, resulting in a "fast break" which is almost never covered, because that person isn't their "color" to guard. Stealing a pass or dribble is against the rules, but not enforced. They guard their color opponent and turn their backs to the ball even when the ball is nowhere near them. So, reading this article leads me to believe the 5-5 full court is probably the biggest mistake our league is doing? What kind of offense do you suggest if our league doesn't make changes? Just to keep practicing skills and "try to get open"? Thanks in advance for your feedback!


Manfred says:
4/30/2020 at 2:31:21 AM

The main question is what does the coach want !?
Is his only aim to win ? At all costs !!??

As a youth coach i have principles that apply to how my team is going to play !

No zone defense during youth education programmes. at earliest that is something for your U18 ... aldo i ould prefer banning it from all youth competitions !!

The same can be said for screens and pick and roll in offense.
teaching to set a good sreen and practice a good pick might take you over a year ... that time can be used to make sure the fundamentals like dribble, shooting and footwork are there first !!

if you consider practice starts with

in that order

I would prefer my team to work on the fundamentals a whole lot more then the tactical.
Maybe then i will see my players back at a higher level later on in their life, instead of them winning a plastic cup for me !

So basicly what i suggest it not start with the mindset of the coach but is installed by federations and clubs !!!
Like in school what should you learn, at what age !!


Todd says:
1/28/2020 at 12:22:21 PM

I am trying to learn more about the sport to help my daughter advance her skills and have a few questions. When my daughter's feeder team plays M2M they make no attempt to defend until the 3 point line. Is this typical or should the defense try to engage earlier? I always felt it ceded almost 3/4 of the court to the opposing team without any challenge. It also seems to have accomplished just the opposite of improving athleticism, they have become lazy and fail to exhibit what my couches always prized when younger: hustle. They often walk or lazy jog back onto defense barely beating the opposing team back. That seems like a really bad habit that I am constantly trying to drill out of my daughter. Currently looking for a new team/skills program.

  1 reply  

Jeff Haefner says:
1/29/2020 at 12:30:43 PM

Ideally, yes, the defense should pick up earlier. There are some exceptions like maybe if it's really young beginners in a rec league... and you want them to get a little confidence first. Or if you are way up on the other team and you're trying to avoid inflating the score.

But for the most part, our youth teams would pick up the ball and start defending around half court. If I felt the opposing team could handle the pressure, we might pick up 3/4 or full court. But I only did that if it was a competent team because I wanted to avoid turning it into a turnover / lay up fest... because nobody improves during those kind of games.

Like you said, it's best for all your players to get challenged to improve footspeed, coordination, skill, balance, and so on. That is why we often play 1v1 full court during practice... it's great for developing athleticism and on-ball defensive skills.


Craig says:
12/3/2019 at 12:12:09 AM

Do you have any tips for helping young players finding a man to guard. There really isn’t an opportunity for me to give defensive assignments and when I send them out and tell them to talk to each other and each find a man there are always a couple of kids in the other team running free. To make matters worse, my league stops doing color wristbands at seven (and allows zone) plus the jerseys only have numbers on the back.

Any tips or tricks would be greatly appreciated!

  1 reply  

Jeff says:
12/3/2019 at 6:34:41 AM

Here are a few ideas that might help you:


Jeff Wright says:
11/8/2019 at 4:25:29 PM

So I coach in a community youth league. One game a week with one, 1-hr practice a week. Lucky if all kids show up on any given week. 10 game season. New kids each season with some staying with me the following season. I initially coached a K-2nd non-competitive team and am now coaching 3rd/4th grade competitive. Talent/skills/experience varies greatly within our team(s) and across teams within same division(s). I typically have little choice on whose on my team but am starting to understand how I can change that in this league. This is a very competitive league with some AAU teams joining in; coaches/parents/fans can, at times, get way out of control.

I started out with a M2M intention because I'm old school and that is what I played 95% of the time growing up all the way through HS. When I quickly realized that kids at this age couldn't come close to understanding the proper way to play TEAM m2m defense, I decided to move away from that defense for the most part and would revisit M2M at around the 5th/6th grade level. (Sounds similar to what I just read from Eric who came from Australia.) I do work on M2M stances, slides, closeouts, etc. but with a 1 hr practice per week and having kids who struggle just to catch a basketball, let alone dribble without traveling, passing, etc. I probably only spend about 15 min a week on defense. Plus I'm trying to make this a fun experience as well for the kids and they want to dribble and shoot.

Most teams play zone in our league. The few teams that do play M2M do not play TEAM m2m (i.e. there is no help defense or there is help defense because kids just swarm to the ball and totally lose site of their man). And that is my point, I don't believe kids at this age can properly play HELPSIDE M2M defense … well definitely not in the time allotted to us to practice. If everyone played M2M in our league, the most common thing that would occur is that the best player on one team would go one-on-one with the best player on the other team … over and over. The other 4 players on offense would generally watch (or maybe move around a little waving their hand) with their 4 defenders HUGGING them with no site on the ball. It is that reason why I have shifted away from M2M at this point. I like to stress team defense and I think a zone at this age is the best way to do that. Everyone can easily see the ball and track where it is. They work together to stop ball penetration. When the man in front of them has the ball, they can utilize the M2M defensive skills that we practice.

Sorry, but I think there are plenty of ways to "develop athletism" and watching kids "follow" their man around the court is not one of them.

Maybe I get too defensive on this, but I get pretty upset when I read these kinds of articles (and know people like Stan Van Gundy has a video out condemning zones at the youth level). I think the traditional way people think about the game and coaching it has changed quite a bit in the last decade; even some of the great coaches haven't kept pace.

I'm just starting with Breakthrough Basketball and it has generally been my sole source of training material, overall, its been great; however, I hope it can show some forward thinking in its articles and training material. No disrespect intended to the Bob B. videos I just purchased (haven't gotten to the motion offense videos yet) because I enjoyed them greatly and will use many of those drills/concepts, but I don't want to keep purchasing videos of how kids were taught basketball 10 yrs ago in the middle of the country. I want my traditional perspectives of the game and how it should be coached challenged with different ideas. I hope Breakthrough Basketball feels the same. 'Acceptance' to zones at the youth level would be a nice start.

btw - I love m2m defense, will likely purchase the Jim H videos from you guys, and can't wait until I have kids mature enough to tackle it with the proper amount of time to teach and practice it.

  1 reply  

Jeff Haefner says:
11/9/2019 at 6:31:19 AM

Jeff -

We have a lot of respect for coaches like you trying to help these players and doing the best you can with the cards you have been dealt!

You're in a challenging situation. We forget that some coaches are working with very young players. And this article wasn't really intended for someone working with players younger than 4th grade... like you said they at least need to be able to catch the ball and be competent enough to play 5v5, otherwise what's the point.

For kintergarten to 2nd grade we definitely recommend avoiding 5v5 games. As you eluded to, it's a mess... you're lucky if players can catch the ball, they swarm up, it's usually dominated by a couple kids, etc.

At that age we recommend skills and small sided games like 1v1 and 3v3. The 5v5 leagues with kids 3rd grade or younger is an old school way of doing things. We have been preaching this for years.

There are many other formats that work much better. But regardless of logistically how it's handled... kids work on some skills and play small sided games 1-3 times a week. They work on skills like dribbling, pivoting, passing, cutting, and basic man defense principles. Then incorporate those lessons into the 1v1, 2v1, 3v,1, 3v2, and 3v3 games with various constraints.

This format did not exist in my area and I wasn't about to put my kids in those 5v5 leagues. So we just invited 10-20 of their friends to the gym to work on skills and play 3v3 once or twice a week. The parents loved it because they saw how their 5v5 leagues were pointless for 1st, 2nd and 3rd graders.

Evan at the 4th to 5th grade level, you could argue 3v3 is better for their development. This is especially true for beginners or players that don't have the basic skills yet. But it's challenging to find tournaments or leagues or games for kids. It's a 5v5 world.

You're right, there are pros and cons to consider when choosing zone or man defense in your situation. You have to weigh the pros and cons... unfortunately that is difficult for most youth coaches to weigh the pros/cons effectively because they just don't have the experience to draw upon (they are often volunteers). So we find it's best and we help the most children by giving a blanket recommendation... play man to man.

We also find that once "most" youth coaches start with zone defense, they have a lot of trouble switching to man to man. They often say they plan to do that, but few make the switch because they don't want to start losing a bunch of games (the zone works too well and they stink at playing m2m)... the players don't like losing and the parents don't want it and it's embarrassing to go backwards. So they stick with zone defense and rationalize that it's the right thing to do.

Another con to zone at that age, is kids end up mostly jacking up outside shots using really bad shooting form because they are not strong enough to shoot properly outside. And the zone defense just encourages more outside shots because generally the lane is clogged up with tall players.

Bottom line, as mentioned in the article above, small sided games are a much better solution whenever possible. Maybe you have some influence and can help instigate some a better development format in the areas you coach.

It also sounds like you're in a league that has a huge mix of talent, experience, and competence. From what I see, the majority of leagues and teams around the country have a pretty decent balance. And they don't have the same issues that you have. But I know you're not the only one. I know others have the same problem. That is another subject that is well beyond the scope of this article. But generally speaking, it's usually best to group fairly similar level players and get them playing with and against each other.

For what it's worth, I can tell you when I coached my kids (I let Lauren start basketball in 2nd grade and Evan start in 1st grade because he was begging me), we did not play 5v5 until end of 3rd grade. Once they played 5v5 tournaments in 3rd grade, they played really good man to man defense. In fact, I was even accused of playing zone defense in a "man defense only" tournament because our kids were in such good help position against a team that just ran ball screens. The opponent did not have players moving in the offense (they just set high ball screen with their best player.... which is something else I don't recommend) so our kids were in help side like they are supposed to be. And it looked like a zone. If they just had someone cut through they'd realize were were in man to man.

Granted, I admit I was able to get them to play really good defense because I had similar level players that were all competent... they learned the basic skills and basic defense principles in 2nd grade playing 3v3. If I inherited a bunch of new players that had no skills in 3rd grade and mixed them with my experienced players, I don't know what I would have done. I would have probably pulled my hair out! Then after taking a breath I would have put the new players in a separate "orientation" camp or program, to get them going on the basics before mixing them in with the more experienced players. I have actually done that before and it's A LOT work.... but fairly effective.

Thanks for sharing and we hope in some way our articles and discussions help you and others!


Todd Harmon says:
11/5/2019 at 4:39:33 PM



DaveR says:
11/5/2019 at 4:23:14 PM

I've taught a m2m to young players where they are assigned a spot instead of a player, and then guard the player they find after reaching the spot. The locations were left block, right block, left wing, right wing, and point.

I was used this to encourage team aspects of defense and preventing layups, and the "Shell" drill fits well into this. I also wanted to prevent a young player from simply shadowing his player all over the court without thought to the rest of team defense. I wanted at least 4 players to have 1 foot in the lane before departing to guard their player, and only then if he has the ball.

  1 reply  

George M says:
1/11/2023 at 7:23:53 PM

How did that work for you? It sounds Pack Lineish. I am trying to work that into my team now, but when they vs 1-3-1 they seem not to get the man side of it and stay in zone.


Show More

Leave a Comment
Email (not published)
Two minus zero is equal to?  (Prevents Spam)
 Load New Question
Leave this Blank