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 and middle school 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 and middle school 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."

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 and middle school teams (7 to 14 year olds) 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 competitive or elite 7th and 8th grade teams doing these things. 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...

    jssocials alternate:


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    Ken Sartini says:
    12/6/2011 at 10:28:16 PM

    This is a GREAT article Joe, you guys really nailed this. You already know how I feel about playing zones at a young age. I wrote something for you awhile back, here is part of it.

    Since I always told my students about building a house and that it takes a good foundation for it to last, but with a poor foundation the building will crumble. I told them that their education was the foundation for their lives. Get a good education and build a good foundation for your future.

    This holds true in basketball also. If we are to have a good program we need to build from the bottom up… ( the foundation ) and that begins at the lowest level possible, teaching the fundamentals of the game and how to play, NOT just sets and winning as the end all. Good solid fundamentals are the foundation of your programs. As a varsity coach I loved it when kids came in knowing how to play m2m defense, be able to read and set screens and how to shoot. I didn’t care what offense they ran, as long as they had these basics, we could teach the rest.

    I only wish that I knew this when I started coaching - it took me awhile to figure it out but I got it.... by the time I moved to the high school level I understood it well... play m2m at the lower levels... do your kids a favor. No one cares if you go 40 -0 in 8th grade IF you cant make the high school team.

    Seeing your kids play varsity basketball is all the gratification that you need. Ws don't mean a thing.

      1 person liked this. 2 replies  

    Bob Robinson says:
    2/26/2016 at 7:52:29 PM

    Having coached for about 30 odd years at all levels it was always my belief that development at the younger ages was our prime objective.
    To play a zone defence I have always believed you needed man principles anyway. In Australia we have banned static zones in our representative programs, teams can press as long as they go back to man principles.
    As a coach I am hoping that at u/15 level our players have been exposed to the three different types of defence because as a coach I like to run them when a different look is required.

      1 person liked this.  

    AndyL says:
    12/10/2018 at 6:19:39 PM

    A kid with great offensive skills but poor defensive skills is ALWAYS favored over a kid who can't hit the broad side of a barn and can't dribble, but plays great defense. Defense is much easier taught and requires just as much heart and effort as athleticism and skill. The skillset needed for correct zone defense is just as important as man to man and absolutely should be taught. Drills to improve athleticm are part of a overall practice session and are not precluded when also learning BOTH zone and man to man, even with time constraints. How about bad habits like never getting an easy steal or committing a needed foul to stop a fast break because your players are "taught not to reach". Your arguments and those who buy off on them are ridiculous. Would love to coach against you at all levels. Unfortunately kids on your losing teams also lose interest in the sport.


    Ken says:
    2/16/2012 at 5:47:16 PM

    I coached 6 - 7- & 8th graders for 13 years, it was in my last 4 years that I figured it out.... IF I wanted my players to have a chance to play at the high school level I needed to teach them how to play m2m defense.

    If I really wanted to teach them how to play the game, I had to change my philosophy. Part of the problem was my own lack of knowledge at that time of my coaching career and I'm glad that I finally saw the light.

    I only wish that internet sites like this were out there for me, to help me become a better coach. I learned the game by watching high school games and talking to the coaches and attending a few clinics.

    Keep up the good work with the knowledge that you provide coaches and players.

      1 person liked this.  

    Dr. Jim Gels - Coach's Clipboard says:
    2/16/2012 at 7:24:56 PM

    Great article Joe... I agree completely with really everything you have said... well thought out, well-presented.


    Bill says:
    2/20/2012 at 5:37:20 PM

    Firm believer in m-t-m. Main reason,like the article stated is that players develop a better basketball IQ. It's all about learning the game and developing players skills.
    This year at the Sophmore level I did press because there were times I had to go with a 4 guard lineup. With this being said most good teams beat pressure. There is nothing like having a good half-court m-t-m defense. It is basically doing the little things(closeouts-help-pressure ball etc.........


    Coach Mac says:
    2/20/2012 at 5:39:21 PM

    A wonderful article by Joe but you know my philosophy on beginning youth programs on the man to man principles... Here in Hong Kong, I refereeed the entitre International High
    School playoffs and not once in any division did I see man to man played..not one..it was all 2-3 zone or full court zone presses into a 2-3 zone..
    Coach Mac

      1 reply  

    XDawg says:
    2/10/2018 at 8:43:10 PM

    That's interesting.


    TommyD says:
    2/21/2012 at 10:02:23 AM

    I coached middle school for years before I was ever convinced young men ages 12-15 could even play the level of m2m to consistently win. Then I came to realize that if they could play man they could even play zone better. from that day on we only played zone vs teams that had no outside threats and/or no player that was 3" taller than our tallest man.
    Zone defenses should be banned in all rec leagues, jr pros, etc. If a player can't make a FT from the rec line(8' for my grandson's age) how can they be expected to shoot-much less make- a shot from 10-15 feet?
    Joe, great article; too bad those rec league coaches will probbaly never read/see it.

      1 reply  

    Wes R says:
    1/29/2015 at 1:07:40 AM

    I coach in a rec league and just witnessed a couple of days ago, a game with 6 yr olds end with a 5-4 score after 36 min of basketball. Both coaches chose to play zone and neither team had the ability to deal with that. It was very disappointing to watch for me. I teach my team m2m defense and will continue to do so. It was very interesting reading the article and comments.


    Steve says:
    2/21/2012 at 10:27:19 AM

    Great article and I couldn't agree more. I have coached youth basketball from 3rd to now 7th grade, both boys and girls. Not only does playing a zone at an early age not teach proper defensive skills, it can also limit an offense and not let the kids do what they need to do with the basketball. We actually had a rule change in our park district where no zones are allowed until 7th grade. I have been criticized for playing man-to-man the whole time by other coaches, but yet the parents like what their children are learning.


    Scott Kish says:
    2/21/2012 at 10:33:58 AM

    a couple of the top high school teams in our area have played a 1-3-1 high zone for years, and have dominated. Their kids learn this early and continue to perfect it as they get older. To say that man to man is the only way is completely wrong. It depends on the philosophy of the whole program and the kids to buy into it from early on. I love man to man, but I have seen some great teams play zone and completely shut down the other team. In this run and gun world (at all levels) that is being taught, its nice to see teams win by being fundamentally better on both ends of the court.


    Tom Chapman says:
    2/21/2012 at 11:18:30 AM

    I agree completely with the m2m philosophy. I learned the game from a m2m coach and agree that it definitely improves athleticism and when played with energy and effort it can be a devastating defense. I am now coaching 6th grade girls and though it has taken some time for them to understand how to provide help, they now give other teams fits with aggressive ball pressure and can handle defending the screens. My coach used to say that m2m was mostly just physical effort and exertion. This year the girls have learned that they can push their bodies harder than they thought.


    Steven Hickcox says:
    2/21/2012 at 11:23:37 AM

    Great points made, however, I have coached in a youth city league where Zone Defense is not allowed and the end result was that teams with a really good ball handler would simply drive to the basket off a pick. The city league also had a rule against isolation - where one player is handling the ball on every possession, however, it was pretty easy to continue setting picks when you had more than one decent ball handler.

    As a coach, I'm not a fan of using Zone Defense for all the reasons pointed out above, however, if my team is outmatched, sometimes going to a zone is the best chance to stop them and actually, I've seen players learning how to move or pick up a opponent in zone with enough practice.

    Same with Pressure Defense. If the other team doesn't have good ball handlers, I'll have my players trap the ball. But I've also had an opponent take advantage of the trap by spacing perimeter shooters and killing us with 3-point shots (Middle School).

    So yes, Zone Defense, when coach improperly can lead to players just standing around under the basket, but with the right amount of coaching and practice, young players can and should learn all defensive strategies to understand the strengths and weaknesses of each method.


    eddie may says:
    2/21/2012 at 12:15:04 PM

    I agree with the man to man defense. I believe that if you can play man to man you can play any defense. While I understand that sometimes you have to play zone to compete, you still need to teach man to man principals. By teaching man to man first, it will make any defense you play beatter and it will also give the kids a better chance to succeed on down the line.


    David Bogataj says:
    2/21/2012 at 12:22:21 PM

    The game of basketball comes down to a one on one situation regardless. If the youth develope man skills than this battle will be won by the best player. I know after 40 years of coaching that it is more than just physical abilities, but the mental part is developed more with man than zone. Over the years I have had players play at all levels, including pro and they all agree that the man I had them learn from my youth coaches was the best part of learning the game. It is not easy, but if you are intent on developing players it is necessary


    Jim Stewart says:
    2/21/2012 at 2:39:43 PM

    I agree that m2m defense should be taught. I am in my 34th year as a varsity head coach. I have run multiple defenses over the years, including junk defenses. I believe it is much easier to teach defense to varsity players if they have a solid basis for m2m defense first. I find it more difficult if they have only played zone. I allow my junior high and youth coaches to run what they like because this is their time to learn as well, however I strongly encourage m2m defense and solid fundamentals be taught.


    Bill Flitter says:
    2/21/2012 at 3:11:55 PM

    I love this quote, "Adapt the game to fit the kids. Not the other way around." It is so true. I am a strong believer adopting the program to the kids skill level. No matter of zone to m2m, we teach defense. This year, we were blessed with a group of kids who could played lights out m2m. Our defense led us to a 12-0 season with the league championship in CYO 3rd grade. The 2nd best team in our league played a 1-3-1. They played it well. I believe the bottom line is to assess the kids and figure out quickly if m2m is in their blood or are they more suited for zone. Error on the side of m2m for all the reasons stated in the article. It will help develop the kids 1-on-1 skills.


    waleed says:
    2/22/2012 at 1:18:31 AM

    thanks joe ...although all coaches here in iraq focus on zone defence for youth players ... bcz they thought the m2m is require specification and quality skills in this level of players .. however im focus on m2m bcz i think this kind of defence when my player teach it as a professional players they can do all kinds of another defences then ...but the problem this kind of defence is hard for players under 15 years and applicate m2m ..thanks joe for this gift.and we will wait another one


    Ken says:
    2/22/2012 at 8:13:42 AM

    Funny about this subject... it seems like the longer the coach is in this business (fun) the more they realize how important m2m defensive skills are. I coached for 42 years and regardless of what zone you might play ( at the upper levels I would hope) the more you realize how important it is to be able to guard someone.
    If you think that kids will automatically be on the HELP line just because they are in a zone, you need to watch some high schools play the game today... and believe me, its not that they aren't working on it... I've seen a few teams practice and they DO work on those fundamentals.

    WALEED -

    You are light years ahead of your counterparts by teaching your kids how to play m2m defense. Yes, it takes hard work and daily drills to perfect the skills necessary to play a good m2m.
    IF coaches would teach m2m defense from day one you would be surprised what younger kids can do. The more you expect from them, the more you will get.


    S.C. says:
    2/22/2012 at 12:17:45 PM

    Hi, I coach a primary school basketball club in England. We are in a position where very few schools and virtually non at primary level play any competative basketball. I only have each squad for 1 year (1 night a week for 1 hour) and find that the children enjoy the session more if we play zone. I would play man if I had the children for longer. Also, in order for my club to get matches against other schools I have to spend several weeks (evenings) coaching the other schools in order that they are not at a great disadvantage. the children find zone much easier to pick up in just a few sessions and I don''''''''t play zone to give my own club an edge. As a matter of fact I see all the children in the matches as my own club. Am I right in my policy of coaching zone?
    S. C.


    Ken says:
    2/22/2012 at 1:46:50 PM

    S.C. -

    I think that if you look at my prior postings you know where I stand on the issue of m2m vs zones at the youth level....

    BUT, far be it from me to judge what you are doing there with the little time you have with each squad and age group.' 1 hour per week does not give you a lot of time to cover everything that needs to be covered, man or zone.

    You are more than giving of yourself, God Bless you for that. You are giving these kids a chance to play ball and have some fun... so in your situation, I wouldn't do anything to change it.... I don't think I could do what you are doing... hang in there and let everyone have some fun.

      1 person liked this.  

    Shawn Gray says:
    2/22/2012 at 4:22:57 PM

    One word sums up my thoughts about this article: AMEN!!!!!!!!!


    Belinda Dyck (South Africa) says:
    2/23/2012 at 4:29:37 AM

    I am really glad you guys wrote this article.
    I have been trying to convince all my coaches at school about this - now I have a full article backing-up what I have been preaching. And you have really covered all the angles!

    Thank you so much.


    Brian O'Hara says:
    2/23/2012 at 7:06:42 AM

    I coach at an international school in Phuket,Thailand and very rarely see anyone play m2m. Sad but true! My U13 team is more soccer oriented and hence don't like to run and ball hawk anyone close and lose interest, so they give up points in bundles. 20 years coaching in Thailand and always push m2m. It's the only way to go and zone should be outlawed for younger ages anyway since most kids can't shoot from outside.


    Keven Australia says:
    2/23/2012 at 8:21:11 AM

    Í coach U/12 Girls in a championship level, they play full court m t m the entire game & by the end of the season they had improved far beyond my & the parents expectations. I must say m t m defence is a winner for me. It worked to our advantage in transition into offence opportunities, looking up for break away players going to the basket.I believe that with a zone a lot of those opportunities would not have had a chance to score so easily.


    David Clifford says:
    2/23/2012 at 8:28:29 AM

    Great article! I taught zone the past season because we were getting hammered by teams. However, I could see what it did to our overall athleticism. I will definitely go forward with a different approach, Man-toMan. I think this article is spot on in teaching the defensive habits that are developed by playing a man-to-man. I could see my girls who were athletic getting lazy when we would play a zone. Man-to-man is much tougher for the girls who don''t really have their heart in it, but I don''t think I should let them hold the rest of the team back from developing better habits. I will definitely go man from here on out. Thanks for the info.


    J McKeown says:
    2/23/2012 at 8:46:28 AM

    Teaching man to man and forcing your kids to really defend is making them smarter, tougher, and more athletic all at once. Lots of coaches don't teach it because they either have no patience to let it develop or they simply don't know how to. If you are a basketball coach the best thing you can do for your kids is make them play man to man. You will be preparing them for the next level.


    Alessandro Mafficini says:
    2/23/2012 at 9:03:39 AM

    I am an Italian coach. Sorry for my bad english! This is a nice question. I think that we must teach to player what means "defense". There's no only one way to defense in youth championship. Personally I belive that learning press-difense is not so good. It's ok until 13-14 years old but over player are more focus and they have tecnical resourse to beat the defense.
    Better teach the right defense, better teach how means "strong" "help&recover" "boxout" "rebounding". These concepts are more important to know than run. I tell to player: "there is one player with the ball that play to score and nine player that must play to have the ball". Thanks...CIAO


    Travis Olson says:
    2/23/2012 at 9:09:56 AM

    "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 this statement is the reason most youth coaches/parents will not run man to man. As a junior high and high school coach, I appreciate the parents/youth coaches, and what they do, but there is almost a larger emphasis on winning than in junior high. It is a strange situation, but I see it more and more. If you get a good lower level coach, you won't need to worry about what is taught. Get a bad one, and you will be spending your junior high years un-teaching and re-teaching.


    Darren Brown says:
    2/23/2012 at 9:31:09 AM

    I think this is a very good article (once again) To link into what SC has said about coaching at a primary school in England I can sympathise totally.
    I'm at a secondary school and time / space commitments are a nightmare. Our school competition starts a month after the academic year begins so I rely on a really fast introduction- Under 14s are not allowed to play zone defence! the downside is that very poor refereeing doesn't pick it up so valiant efforts to teach m2m and give the kids a good grounding comes up against a wall of zone defence and one thing the refs DO know is that you can't question them!!

    SC, If you want to get in touch I use a triangle drill which is relatively simple and you can draw / tape shapes onto the floor to help.


    Ed says:
    2/23/2012 at 9:35:19 AM

    One of the more thorough articles and right on. I have coached youth for years and was lucky ehough to be taught by one of my head coaches these very principles. To many times I am seeing mandatory man until middle school and then coaches feel they must go to man either because everyone else is or they fall prey to the easier initial wins. They take a team well developed on man, change them to zone, and screw up both approaches because the age group cannot do both effectively. Well done Joe.


    Lance says:
    2/23/2012 at 9:48:48 AM

    The leagues where I have coached (3rd-8th grades) only allow for man-to-man defense, zones are illegal. Even if they were allowed I would only teach my players man-to-man defense.


    Eduardo says:
    2/23/2012 at 10:01:01 AM

    Great article, I am a coach from Uruguay, Southamerica, and this is the big problem to resolve.
    Uruguay and Argentina, have understood this, and most of the coaches use man to man defense as "mother defense", then when the kids grow up, we can teach another kind of defense.
    Now I am working in Ecuador, and same problem.
    So, I am agree, excellent job Joe.


    Coach Roberts says:
    2/23/2012 at 10:16:59 AM

    I agree that M2M defense is essential learning in order to play basketball. You have to learn to play on-ball and off-ball defense in order to play any style defense, zone or man. You have to learn how to pressure the ball, close out properly, recover, help all that. But you have to learn to play defense as a team.

    I have had great teams and terrible teams. They all learned to play defense M2M as a team. There is no saying, "Coach, it wasn't my man that scored." This is a selfish, immature view that kids often share when things aren't going well. Defensive concepts have to be taught individually and as a team.

    I don't think M2M only philosophies are the answer, because I essentially teach my defense the way Tom Izzo teaches his: pressure the ball at or below a given point, cover the blocks and elbows, provide early help and recover quickly if the ball is kicked back to your man, rotate over low in the direction of the pass, and never, ever give up the lane.

    Zone defenses are taught as differently as M2M. Some trap aggressively in half court, others pack the lane and force outside shots. The concepts of guarding the ball and being in position to intercept passes, help on drives, and rotate are identical, if taught that way. My opinion is that coaches use zones because they have limited practice time to prepare for games, so they stick them in the lane with a vague notion of what to do, then spend any remaining time working on offense.


    Kirk says:
    2/23/2012 at 10:19:34 AM

    Ok, I'll take the bait.

    I disagree completely. But let me explain.

    This is quoted from the article: "a big problem with zone defenses and presses is that many youth coaches allow their players to develop bad defensive habits".

    What you are really saying is coaching is the problem. Not the choice of defense. To be effective you need to learn a well rounded set of skills. Zone m2m etc. Not just one defense is acceptable. The kids need skill diversity.

    Another point that is totally being missed is the AGE of the players being discussed. I started a team in 3rd grade. I don't care who you are, you can't teach 3rd graders correct m2m. Zone is a great way to keep them from developing bad habits until they have a comprehension for the game. We started with zone, now we play m2m or zone depending on the other team. we are now a 5th grade team and won first place after moving up to the advanced league.

    Don't blame the zone for lame coaching. It has its benefits when taught appropriately for the age group.

      2 replies  

    Michael Heinze says:
    12/2/2016 at 11:56:08 AM

    I agree with Kirk. If we are truly preparing the kids for the future they should have every opportunity to see how the game of basketball moves and flows. It is disheartening for a kid to face some well skilled ball handler who is simply going to dribble passed them in m2m and not be able to defend without fouling. I believe the earlier kids can be taught thinking on the court as well as skills is important. I start my 5th and 6th graders playing m2m but use those skills to teach a zone and explain to them when and why we use each in a game situation. We also teach help side m2m which is more like a zone using man skills anyway.


    Caleb says:
    1/8/2018 at 10:33:15 AM

    I would disagree that you can't teach 3rd graders m2m. While most of them definitely aren't developed athletically to shut another player down one-on-one, you can definitely teach them ball defense principles (staying low, sliding feet, no hands, etc.). Almost more importantly, you can teach m2m team defense principles (weak side help, helping in the gap, getting away from your man when you're man is far from the ball, etc.). I've done it and have seen many other coaches do it. It's just a matter of repetition and practice.


    Jon says:
    2/23/2012 at 10:35:58 AM

    I firmly believe and support teaching man defense to youths. As you stated in the article, when I was a new youth coach we played zone defense and nothing seemed to work well. We used 2-3 3-2 1-3-1 and some junk defenses. While they were moderately successful it never got us to championships. I later switched to man defense and our program improved tremendously. Other schools fear our defense and because it's so animated. I think your comments about the game IQ is spot on. We improved more than simply our defense, the players understood the game better.


    Murdock says:
    2/23/2012 at 10:36:12 AM

    I love it, I couldn't coach this year due to family issues, the person that took over for me ran into a team that played Zone against them and beat them. The new coach intantly went back to practice and put in a Zone. I told him at this level it's about teaching the game not winning and losing. We live in a rural area and some programs are strong year after year, while some are weak year after year. The program that was running zone has been weak year after year because they try to win at the 5th & 6th grade level instead of teaching good fundamentals. I believe in teaching the following: Proper D, Proper Rebounding, Proper Passing, and Proper Shooting.
    I don't even run an offense, If you play good D, get most of the Rebounds, and can make Layups the Offense takes care of itself at the middle school level. Can't wait to get back at it next year.


    Ben says:
    2/23/2012 at 10:39:39 AM

    I like it MAN TO MAN ALL THE WAY


    Spur One says:
    2/23/2012 at 11:02:24 AM

    I completely agree with Kirk's comments. I've successfully coached at the High School varsity and JV level as well as youth. Kirk is spot on.

    Kids need to learn early on how to play a zone defense because if they know how to play it they will know how to beat it. Believe me they will play against all types of zones.

    If you can teach kids how to play a good zone with m2m principles then learning the intricate elements of m2m will be a snap.


    Matt says:
    2/23/2012 at 11:05:07 AM

    I coach a 4th grade boys team that over the past year transititioned from rec ball to the competitive leagues. Due in part to what I have learned from this site, as well as my own intuition, we play man-to-man defense exclusively.

    It's REALLY hard and tests the patience of anyone who is even remotely competitive. When we first started playing really good teams, we were getting absolutely torched by good ball handlers. I would say it has taken close to a year to get where the boys get switching (though we still struggle at times) and in particular help defense that is required. But they have come a long way. I think the biggest benefit to teaching m2m d is overall court awareness.

    We played 14 games this winter (and 8 last summer in a different league) and faced one team that played m2m. I would say that against a really good team, playing m2m puts you about 10 points behind from the get go, but I'm convinced it's the right thing for the kids. And the parents really appreciate it...but you need to explain what you're doing.

    One thing I implemented later in the season against good team is a sagging m2m, where players stayed in the paint unless their man had the ball...this helped stopped penetration from really good players. By the end of the season, we played pretty good d.

    As a youth basketball coach, I see my role as developing ALL 8 kids on my squad. I'm trying to win, but I'm not going to sit a kid 3 quarters, play zone defense, or have our offense run thru 1 player in order to win (and we see that a lot!) We are a solid team, we can't compete with select squads but we did really well in our city league. But my goal is to have everyone of the kids on my team play for their middle school and that's my focus, not building a 4th grade basketball empire.

    It's incredibly hard to coach basketball to develop as opposed to win, especially when every team you face is trying to win first. I'm thankful for this site that keeps me focused on the right things. Keep up the great work!


    Tom Doroff, 5th Grade Coach, Colorado says:
    2/23/2012 at 11:23:33 AM

    I agree with this article, and tested the theory this year, when many teams were moving to zones we stuck to our guns on defense. We struggled on offense initially against other zones -- it seems like an impenetrable wall, however it taught my boys how to play good offense against other teams' zones. However - we did not play a zone defense and played man-to-man pressure defense.

    I taught them offside help, how to "pinch" incoming lane drives (2 men stopping the drive), how to be between the man and the basket AND the man and the ball. I used the saying "a good man to man looks like a zone" and by golly by the end of the season you could see my guys playing it. At one time a coach asked about our unusual zone - the best compliment of the year. They picked up their man each time, but were seen playing in the paint, between their man and the ball, hands up and intercepting passes. Really wonderful stuff.

    They even began to experiment on their own, using offside help and "pinches" to begin trapping in all kinds of areas that you might not see. It made it possible to shut down teams with one or two really strong players - We also used a full court pressure defense but didn't guard the offender who threw in the ball - as close to a zone as we would get -

    I found that while we struggled early on, they became a stronger team, watched each other and the offense. It was SOOOOO tempting to go to a zone when I saw so many other teams doing it, but I kept coming back to the ideas that I read on this site originally to avoid it - my guys now understand how to beat a zone, without having played it - and they will be ready for a zone when the time comes. Oddly I used to "let" them try a zone when we scrimmaged just for fun - they tried and went back to man to man because they said it was more fun, they could make choices and steal the ball! We probably lost some games offensively against zones, but I can tell you we held down some of the tougher teams in the league to lower points than we would have otherwise. I'll stop now - can't say enough about this!


    Jeff Haefner says:
    2/23/2012 at 11:24:06 AM

    Kirk and Spur One,

    How do you recommend getting youth coaches out there to teach the good defensive fundamentals (along with developing players athleticism, which you have to at least play some man defense if you want to do that)?

    The reason I ask that question is because I've seen a lot of youth games and talked to thousands of youth coaches. For the far majority of them, once they start with a zone defense they struggle beyond belief trying to switch to and/or incorporate man defense. The reason is because the parents and player are used to winning and they are comfortable in the zone. It takes a "special" coach with either a lot of guts and motivation or a lot of experience to make that switch.

    I'm just curious because just observing I see most youth coaches get addicted to the zone once they start with it. I'm not saying all of them. I'm just saying the majority of them.

    So it seems like the best "general recommendation" is for youth coaches to start out teaching man to man. Then once players are good (several years of experience), and the time is right, then you can start incorporating zone.

    Can you succeed going about it a different way? Sure you can. But that takes a special coach with a high level of experience and understanding. Let's face it. Most youth coaches don't have a tremendous amount of experience and even the experienced ones have a difficult time teaching zone defense the right way. Key words "the right way". You just don't see it. Even at the high school level, you don't see a lot of zone taught the "right way".


    Jeff Haefner says:
    2/23/2012 at 11:31:31 AM

    PS - Also please note that we don't believe that 3rd graders should be playing 5on5. In our opinion they should be playing 3on3. And they should not be shooting with 28.5 in balls and 10 ft baskets either.

    So if you're playing 3on3, zone isn't even part of the discussion. We also believe that winning is NOT a measurement of good youth coaching. I believe the most important things for a youth coach to do are:

    1. Make a positive impact by teaching character, integrity, confidence, positive thinking, teamwork, and helping them learn to love sports and basketball.

    2. Develop players so they can reach their maximum potential

    Bob Bigelow says "The aim for youth sports should be to have fun, get exercise, develop skills, and foster a love for the game." I think that's pretty good.

    So winning at the 3rd, 4th, or 5th grade level has nothing to do with those two things above. Sure you are trying to win. Everybody is trying to do that. But with YOUNG kids, the two things above should be priority over winning.

    This is just my opinion.

    What are your goals and what do you think are the priorities for young kids that you are coaching?


    Mike Huff says:
    2/23/2012 at 11:54:18 AM

    Totally agree that kids should learn to play man to man defense first. If I had the chance, I would outlaw zone defenses until at least 8th grade. Zone defenses for kids just give coaches the opportunity to not really teach defense. If we teach kids good man to man principles it will help them at every level of basketball, no matter if they plan man to man or zone. I see too many kids who stand around in zones when they are kids, then have no idea how to play man to man when they move to better competition.


    Kent Caniglia says:
    2/23/2012 at 11:57:50 AM

    I also like this article and agree 100% with teaching m2m defense. I coach 7th grade girls now, but when I had them 2 years ago, I ran a
    1-3-1 zone defense and was tough to beat. Last year, I read a lot of articles on BreakThrough Basketball and all the positves about getting the kids to develop into m2m. I went under 500 last year because I wanted to try it out. This year we are 22-2 and continue to get better. Most teams don't know how to handle a m2m defense at this age because everyone tends to run a 2-3/1-3-1. I can honestly say I've used a zone defense just a number of times this year because the other teams were just to fast for us to cover. Thanks for these great articles!


    Douglas Reid says:
    2/23/2012 at 12:05:33 PM

    Brilliant article and should be brought to the attention of the organizers of the leagues we all play in.
    As both coach and organizer with responsibility for the school league, I will now make it a point of duty to encourage the coaches to stick to M2M and not press in the back court at the 8-12 yo level. Mandate the change if necessary.
    Passing this article on is a must.


    DeWanyne says:
    2/23/2012 at 12:15:45 PM

    You teach kids the at the level they understand the game of basketball, and adjust as the kids become more comfortable with either the zone or the man.


    Mike says:
    2/23/2012 at 12:18:11 PM

    Every youth basketball coach should read this article, and then "TEACH" man to man defense. The biggest issue I see in youth basketball is the tendency to work on offensive sets and plays instead of teaching the fundamentals. Yes, time needs to be given to offensive sets and plays, but the foundation needs to be teaching the basics. Thanks for a great article.


    Vic says:
    2/23/2012 at 12:19:52 PM

    i just got through coaching 6 and 7 year olds and 8 and 9 year olds. we played zone on both teams, and here is why:

    1. no one can shoot accurately from outside the paint, so zone allows you to shut down the inside.

    2. some of our kids were totally 100% clueless and if you had a man on man defense, there would be one or two kids open every single time just simply not being guarded.

    3. some 6 year olds can't dribble and if you put a defender on him/her non-stop, it makes it that much more difficult and no fun for the kid. i feel bad for those kids on the other teams.

    4. trying to tell a 6 or 7 year old who to guard is A NIGHTMARE. they forget, they get the kids mixed up... it's awful.

    5. trying to match kids up by talent is impossible when you don't know who is good and who isn't on the oppposing team, and unlike with adults, you really can't switch it up with the kids because it confuses them.

    6. zone is 100% easier to teach the kids and it's the only way the court looks organized. at the age of 6 or 7, the kids are just flying around the court willy nilly and they don't have the skills to yet to get open any other way than to run wildly. so if you put someone on each person, everyone just runs wildly around the court trying to get open and it's a mess.

    7. trying to teach them to cover for one another or pick up the other guy's man are difficult concepts for them to understand. it's way easier to teach them to stand in a certain spot and guard that area and anyone who comes into it.

    anyway, eventually all the teams in the league played zone. it just worked better we thought.


    Tod says:
    2/23/2012 at 12:22:05 PM

    I coach a very young girls team and we play man2man so want to let others know what to expect. I coach a 2nd grade girls team in the local YMCA league (this is our second year playing). I switched to m2m defense because when playing zone there was always 1 or 2 players who are just standing around in one spot not moving. Playing m2m, if forced all my girls to keep their feet moving. Even if it meant that initially a couple of the girls were only "following" another person all over the court. They do get better at watching both the ball and defender but I know it going to take some time before they all learn to help and recover (for the athletic ones they learn it right away). Another challenge that I''m facing is having the girls match up with a person of their caliber. The youth courts are so short that it''s chaos during the time the other team is bringing the ball up and when my girls are trying to figure out who to guard. They are starting to learn to take another person if another teammate is guarding their person. I''m constantly yelling "mark up, mark up". It''s a term that they all know from soccer so I yell that instead of "match up". Anyways, it''s not always pretty watching them play m2m but it keeps ALL 5 players moving and I know that when they get to 4 grade CYO league they will be tenacious on defense.


    Kyle says:
    2/23/2012 at 12:24:34 PM

    I wish all coaches had the same philosophy about some coaches coaching for the outcome and not the total process. I coach 5th-8th grade boys and I get to work on that process for 4 good years and I get to see how much they improve year by year by stick with my phiosophy of primarily playing m2m. There are times when playing zone has worked for us, mostly against teams that are significantly larger than my teams. Coming from a small rural school, we have to play a lot of larger communities who's primary goal is winning, and they play zone and press at the 5th & 6th grade level. Some games we lose by over 30 points because my boys do no have the strength to beat a zone. It can be frustrating as a coach and a player to deal with that, but I tell my boys to keep their heads up and stick with it and they will become great athletes.


    Randy Matamoros says:
    2/23/2012 at 12:27:14 PM

    Agree with all of this... it seems like the problem with implementing it is the pressure to win combined with so many others playing zone/playing primarily to win. Would it work to gather the coaches in your league to actually talk to each other and agree on some "rules of engagement", to better develop the kids while keeping a level playing field in terms of tactics? We can each do whatever we want with our individual teams, but it seems like a group effort is needed for a truly satisfactory solution.

    Also, a tiny problem with your baseball analogy: nobody pitches from 90 feet. That's the distance between bases; major league pitching mounds are 60 feet, 6 inches from home plate. It's a great analogy, but we might as well get the details right!

    Thanks for your insights - they've completely changed the way I think about youth sports.


    Ken says:
    2/23/2012 at 12:34:41 PM


    Glad we hooked you! :-) First of all, God Bless you for working with that age group, I don't think I could work with 3rd graders.

    Not sure where to start... bottom line is... somewhere along the line the kids need to know how to guard some one,,, and they only get those skills from m2m fundamentals. They only learn how to help out on ball penetration from m2m fundamentals (without 5 kids attacking the ball.

    I wont disagree that teaching 3rd graders how to play defense is easy, let alone m2m... its hard.. but IF you start early you will begin to teach them GOOD HABITS rather than standing around airing out armpits ( as the first varsity coach I used to work with always said )

    I have been around this game for a long time... more years than I care to say.... and the games I watch today... I see more teams playing zones because their kids don't understand m2m fundamentals... and its not that they aren't being taught, I've been to some of their practices... amazing how things don't transfer from practices to games... and its all about what they learned before they got to the high school level. Its almost impossible to break those bad habits.

    You see more middle school teams playing zones because its easier to teach and they are thinking about Ws, NOT preparing them for the next level.

    I wonder what it would be like IF they didn't keep score for the younger kids and not worry about Ws and Ls? Just teach m2m and a simple motion offense, pass and cut... and take the rest of the time to work on other fundamentals and let them have fun. JMO

    I watched a 5th grade Russian team play 4 on 4 / m2m defense, it was amazing what they could do. They didn't learn that overnight... ( I wish I could rmember what thread that was in so I could show you)

    I think that IF you took a poll here you would find that most coaches are in favor of m2m at an early age....


    disan says:
    2/23/2012 at 12:39:56 PM

    truly speaking... i still believe all the defenses have a vital role to play in development of young player especially with the emphasis being put on them having fun, learning skills and it being our duty to make sure they dont have a lot of short comings when it comes to experiencing the next level of their basketball career. i think the M2M is better for player development while the other systems are better for team development one fundamental players should never forget, that the game is a team-game. i prefer to alternate M2M, Zone and Press defenses because i want my players to run (move their feet), communicate and achieve a common goal respectively.but thats a Ugandan scenario where i get put to 3 hours a week for a period of 3 months. but if i had less time as for the USA, i would concentrate more on drills that get players to communicate, achieve a goal together and polish a M2M and try to tip in on basic zone defenses and try them out in games


    Nick S says:
    2/23/2012 at 12:46:58 PM

    I use them all: M2M, zone and press. It's situational based, the kids do grasp these concepts fairly easily and depending on your high school feeder markets, some use zone, or M2M and by involving these kids early on in some of the fundamentals of these plans, even with one hour a week practices, they retain something for later. These kids (5th/6th graders) aren't superstars but they are getting it. These kids need to be prepared to switch plans mid stream because it's going to happen in high school. Getting them in that mindset early helps them develop in my opinion. Does it mean winning more games? Not necessarily but that will come later when they get bigger, faster. Just last week we won (for the first time in 4 games) by shifting from Zone trap to M2M to press and the boys worked brilliantly through the shifting. Caveat this to working with the same boys for several years. New kids who are very green may get discouraged but I coach this to all three of my teams at a different pace, for I have developmental, semi-competitive and competitive teams.


    Rick says:
    2/23/2012 at 12:51:58 PM

    I currently Coach a Middle School Age Parks and Rec group of players in CA. I practice one to two hours a week. There are five travel ball teams in my small town.

    I have taught my kids m2m, 1-3-1, 2-3, Box-1, Triangle 2 and a full court trap over the years. After several years of coaching I jut asked our local HS Coach what he would like me to teach the kids. Our local HS team runs the full court trap. Therefore I run mostly the full court trap. We have to run a 2-3 when up by 10 or more and this actually makes it worse on the other team. M2M really just makes it a 1on or 2on2 game between the best players. Teach a full court trap and I believe the kids learn a lot of different skills.

    What I do like to do is change to a m2m after every time out. I also like to call out different defenses with signals to make the kids adapt on the fly on the court.

    I am not a fan of a zone as you can see. We have had teams run 4 minutes on a posession against a 2-3 zone because they didnt know what to do. m2m is hard to match up So bottom line here is we try and teach what the HS Coach runs in order to feed that program.


    Craig says:
    2/23/2012 at 12:53:33 PM

    I feel Man to man defensive principles are the most important skills to teach. What I have seen is if the players have strong, individual and team, man to man skills, they can translate that to run any style of defense.


    Ken says:
    2/23/2012 at 12:58:19 PM

    Vic -

    This is why youth coaches teach zones..

    "through coaching 6 and 7 year olds and 8 and 9 year olds. we played zone on both teams, and here is why: 1. no one can shoot accurately from outside the paint, so zone allows you to shut down the inside. 2. some of our kids were totally 100% clueless and if you had a man on man defense, there would be one or two kids open every single time just simply not being guarded."

    These are the things that need to be taught... Watch Bob Bigleows tape on Coaching Youth Basketball..... teach some skills and let them have fun. Would be better 3 on 4, maybe 4 on 4 with shorter baskets and smaller balls too.


    Kevin J says:
    2/23/2012 at 1:00:40 PM

    In the end, youth coaches who don't spend time teaching their kids to play M2M are doing a disservice to their kids, for all the reasons listed in the article. Not to be negative, but the main reason most coaches do it is because they care more about winning and looking good to the parents (most who don't know better). But even if it's for one of the "pro-" reasons listed in the article, it doesn't matter. It's still not what's best for the development of the kids. And that is what it's all about!
    We have a great coach- we have faced zone defenses in at least 4 or 5 games (of the past 10) and he refuses to stoop to their level. It's probably cost us a a couple of games. But I know in a few years when my kid is playing HS ball, these other kids will be more likely to be found sitting on the bench because they don't play M2M well. How sad!


    Keith says:
    2/23/2012 at 1:11:52 PM

    Great stuff here. I think one of the things that coaches over look is why you play zone. Kids need to develop a basketball IQ, and I dare say some youth coaches as well. Zone is used in youth ball as we all know as a kind of catch-all. It is easier than man to man is some ways. But for BB IQ, zone is done against teams with large post players to have any chance of getting rebounds and to double up on the big men, you can't always do it with M/M. Kids are smarter than we give them credit for and so my approach is to school them as to why and when to use Zone vs M/M. If we expect kids to have some BB IQ then coaches need it as well. Zone is not a one size fits all defense!


    Charles S says:
    2/23/2012 at 1:26:29 PM

    I coached a 10 yr old youth team at the YMCA for the first time this year. Our Y allows zones and also allows full court press in the last three minutes of each half.

    I used both of Bob Bigelow''''s CDs to prepare for the season and agreed with his man-to-man (m2m) teaching philosophy, so we practiced and played just m2m for the first four games of the season.

    The kids definitely learned a lot from this approach; however, we gave up 17-30 points in those games - at the 10 year old level there is ALWAYS one or two kids that don''''t find their man each trip down the floor. The other teams played zones exclusively and we seemed to max out at scoring 15-18 points per game.

    We did get a lot of turnovers out of our m2m. Unfortunately, your typically 10 year old Y player shoots and dribbles so poorly we couldn''''t do much with them.

    Long story short, I just felt like it wasn''''t fair to the players to put them at such a disadvantage to the other teams playing zones. (Its one thing to drop close games, another thing entirely to get blown out) So, we switched to zone later in the season and were very competitive the rest of the way.

    (I did note that our zone defense started out very strong after the switch from m2m - aggressive play and decent fundamentals, but became a lot softer with poorer fundamentals the more games we played it)

    I''''m totally in favor to youth leagues outlawing zones, but for one team to unilaterally rule out zone defense is a recipe for a long and disappointing season I think.

    I''''d be willing to reconsider if someone has a system for getting a ten year old player to pick up his man each time down the court ;-) anyone? anyone? Beuller? You know, other than yelling, "HEY BILLY! FIND YOUR MAN!!!"

    Next season, I will likely begin with m2m defense with the intention of transitioning to zone about 2/3 the way through the season.


    BrianHodo says:
    2/23/2012 at 1:40:25 PM

    I agree. Man to Man is the way to go. I coach 7th grade girls. Over the last 3 years, we've gone man for the majority of the time. We've lost a majority of the time too. But, where I see it pay off is the following years. The last 3 8th grade groups were a combined 38 wins and 14 losses. Sure I suffered at the 7th grade level getting beat on the back door cut for the 5th time that half or watching the guard getting lost in another screen. But as the season went on and we practiced proper footwork, spacing and communication, they got better, a lot better. To put it plainly, we now spend a significant part of practice teaching defensive skills. I'm really starting to see the long term benefits now that some of my former girls are playing JV and even some Varsity time as freshmen. They are far more athletic than prior years and understand the game much more. I still love the zone full court press but from now we'll fall back into an agressive M2M.


    vh says:
    2/23/2012 at 1:49:54 PM

    Great article, however...... I to have watched many 6-7-8 grade level games with great m2m being "taught". In one case the Offensive team was running a motion offense, you know the old down screen the wings and they pop out to get the pass. However, the defense knew that better than the offense did and ran right to those spots everytime down the court. With any imagination or "coaching" it could have been a lay-up fest!!!
    Do we really want our kids to play the game with no instincts at all?? And if you really want to teach the mid-line or help rules, have them trap occasionally and kids will fly to the ball!!!! We don''t ask youth football teams to back up 20 yards from the line of scrimmage....we don''t tell youth volleyball teams they have to serve underhanded, so if your kids can handle and understand full ct. defensive situations....why not??


    Matt says:
    2/23/2012 at 1:50:13 PM

    A couple of thoughts...without trying to come across as sanctimonious.

    -For those who switched because they were getting blown out or felt like it wasn''t fair. Quit focusing so much on the scoreboard and just focus on improving. As I mentioned above, I have 10 year old boys and we fought thru this. Last summer my team went 0-8, but we kept improving. This winter, we were in a different league that had some lesser teams, but we beat 2 of the teams that had drummed us over the summer and we ended up going 8-2 and finishing in 2nd place. We focus on skills & fundamentals, including practicing playing defense. And we make sure every kid on the team is improving. If you keep doing those things, your results will improve.

    -In youth basketball, where at times kids will throw up prayers that will go in while good shots don''t fall, to judge your success by W''s & L''s in a 24 minute game is silly. We got beat by a team that had two huge kids that kept getting rebounds and would eventually put in their one-handed shots. The kids had no skills, the literally couldn''t dribble the ball....they just had size. Oh well, we got beat...but I don''t think those kids will be better players when the get to middle school. Every kid on my team can handle the ball and contributes. We had multiple games where every kid on the team scored. Those are the wins in my book.

    -Finally, for those concerned that your kids will be scarred by losing games. The memory of a 10 year old kid is pretty dang short. The competitive ones get upset when they lose....but it lasts about 15 minutes and they are ready to go grab a burger. If you don''t make wins & losses the most important thing in the world....they won''t either.


    Michael Cregger says:
    2/23/2012 at 1:50:44 PM

    I coach a girls 5th grade team in our rec league in Colorado, and man to man defense is required, up thru 7th grade (oldest age group in the league). Full court defense is only allowed in the 4th quarter, and double teaming the ball is only allowed after passing the half-court line. I fully believe that these rules allow us coaches to help the players to develop good basic skills before they move on to the next level (i.e. middle school and high school). This is especially true when we only have 3 one-hour practices every two weeks and a game every Saturday.


    Gary says:
    2/23/2012 at 2:34:25 PM

    My biggest point here is this: Are you coaching or teaching? If you are coaching at this level, you would want to play zone more, because this is precipitous to winning games. People who are teaching, would play man to man, because winning the single game is not as important as the kids learning how to play the game properly for the future.

    The phrase, "nothing is learned until it is taught, and nothing is taught until it is learned" comes to mind.


    Allen Skeens says:
    2/23/2012 at 2:34:42 PM

    Thanks Joe for a great article. It was also nice to see so many people had read it and left comments. From all around the world I might add. As you know, I coach 3 boys teams of 4th, 5th and 7th graders. I have had the 7th graders since the 2nd grade. In all of those years none of my teams have played even one possession of zone defense. I even remember a time when I lost a couple of kids to injury and fouls and only had four kids left on the floor and we still played man and just left the weakest player open. I guess I am stubborn that way. I think it is an absolute travesty to see all of these youth teams out there playing zone defense. We play a lot and I would say we face zone defenses 90% of the time. The really disappointing part is the fact that probably 75% of the time we are playing up in age against older kids and still see it. I have talked with my other coaches about working with the 7th graders this summer on some zone concepts in practice so that I can prepare them for high school but I still won't use it myself in games. In one important respect I disagree with a lot of your readers. I actually think teaching someone to play a good effective zone defense the right way is much more difficult than teaching straight-up man to man. What makes it almost impossible is if you don't have the fundamental man to man principles first. Also, you can work with kids as young as the first grade and if taught properly they can definitely pick it up. It makes them work harder, play harder, pay better attention, be more observant, be more reactive and ultimately be more accountable. We work on very basic defensive fundamentals and shell drill every practice for half of the time we have allotted. To be successful playing at a high level you absolutely must be able to guard a man and keep him in front of you. It is as simple as that. We have enjoyed some decent success as a team employing this basic principle and it is what I will continue to do as long as I coach youth basketball.


    Ken says:
    2/23/2012 at 2:40:05 PM

    Charles -

    You were doing your kids a favor by teaching m2m... the problems start when parents/coaches worry about Ws... teach them the game, get them ready to play at the next level and then you will be doing them a real favor,
    Trust me, when I was still coaching and we some freshman come in, we could tell the ones that were taught zone and the ones that were taught m2m. The man players were way ahead of the other kids, zone players are put at a distinct disadvantage.

    Brian -

    Kudos to you for teaching m2m. You have to feel really good when YOUR players as freshman are playing JV and at time Varsity ball. GREAT job.

    VH -

    Maybe at the 7th & 8th grade level thats fine.. but for the younger kids... what would they be learning? They don't have the skills or the strength to handle presses and traps. JMO

    Matt -

    Amen to that... who cares who wins at 10 years old IF they can't play at the next level. Stick to your guns.


    Ken says:
    2/23/2012 at 2:46:07 PM

    Good for you Allen - you are doing your kids a HUGE favor. They will appreciate everything you did for them when they get to high school and can really play.
    I can tell you that the high school coach will also appreicate it... I loved the kids that came in and knew how to play m2m D.
    You had better be a GREAT shooter if you wanted to play for me and were a poor defender.


    Coach M says:
    2/23/2012 at 2:59:32 PM

    I agree with the article 100%. Thank You and well said!
    I have coached boys and girls grades 4 – 8 in traveling basketball and am also on our basketball association board of directors. We highly encourage our coaches to play M2M half-court defense but most of them still rely on zone defenses and full court press and it is frustrating. THEIR need to win is apparently more important than developing young players.
    I do agree with a couple of people who say kids need to understand how to play zone and full court press. We face every type of defense imaginable (even at the 4th grade level) so we have to prepare our kids on the offensive end so I take that opportunity in practice to teach zone and full court defense.
    M2M is NOT hard to teach and nothing anyone says will change my mind on that! Spend 5 - 10 minutes of every practice running the shell drill and work with the kids playing 1on1, 2on2 or 3on3 and they will develop the skills and have a lot of fun in the process. I have taught 4th grade boys with the attention span of a gnat how to play good M2M help defense. Yes, kids get confused and lose their player and help defense is not always in the right spot but the only way they will develop is to make mistakes and learn from them. Make sure you recognize and reward kids for playing good defense. For those of you that are just as interested in winning, we won a state championship last year playing exclusively M2M defense against schools that are 3 – 5 times larger than ours. We were outmatched in every game and it was our help/team defense that was the key to winning.
    Most importantly, for those people saying they have to play zone against the teams with bigger or faster players in order to compete, I disagree 100%. Part of learning proper M2M defense includes your perimeter players being able to collapse down and help the post players and then recover when facing a bigger team. Against faster players or a really good ball handler, help defense is just as effective as a zone. If the other team has one player that is their entire offense then put an athletic player on him (rotate a couple of players) and have that player play complete denial. The other team will fall apart and the player(s) guarding the other teams stud will learn more about denial defense in one game than most players get their entire career. Use the line “if (s)he goes to the restroom I want you to go with and open the door for her/him”.


    brad says:
    2/23/2012 at 3:30:40 PM

    I am amazed after reading these comments. The article says that zone will be MORE effective. The entire reason that people state for using it is exactly why you should not use it. It says that in the article. Kids do not have the strength in 3rd - 6th grade to be good effective outside shooters. They are not strong enough to be able to take contact and dribble penetrate. They cannot pass the ball around the outside quick enough to move the zone. That is the whole point of the article. Think about offensive development along with the defensive development. I have kids that are 11 and 10. They are both well above average size. I will not let them shoot the ball from very far outside because as soon as you do, they start "throwing" it, for lack of a better term, and that also teaches them bad habits. M2M is better for the development of both the offense and the defense. Zone works better, its just not good at all for the kids.


    G.Dogg says:
    2/23/2012 at 3:57:30 PM

    Great article. Here in New Zealand, Zones are illegal until our kids are 15. At each tournament we have people called zone busters who watch the games to make sure coaches don't use zones. If a team uses a zone the coach is given a warning. If he continues with the zone he is given a Technical.
    I love M2M and find it much more rewarding and exciting to watch and coach. If I do go to a zone it's usually a Box and 1 or Triangle and 2.


    MIke-Team X says:
    2/23/2012 at 4:19:52 PM

    worth the time to read the entire article, I coach at the Youth level and in our league from 6-11 yrs old they MUST play M2M defense and not only do we teach that but they must stay within 1 arms length of the person they are guarding, this eliminates the chance to cheat or give Help defense. we try and teach them to Move their feet and keep a low ceiling.


    Richard C says:
    2/23/2012 at 4:24:28 PM


    Coach, this is definitely a hot topic. I am coaching a 7th grade boys Bantam team. I love coaching. I had some great coaches when I was younger and have always tried to give back to our community what they gave to me. This is my first experience coaching basketball at the bantam level. I have coached baseball and football at a competitive level. I have coached basketball at a recreation league level. When I took this team, I read your suggestions early on and have been working on teaching man to man defense to my team. The struggle comes when you start playing league games two weeks later and everyone else is playing zone. Parents don't like watching their son get beat going to the basket. Some kids are very athletic at this age and some are still developing and they get exposed very quickly. Everyone wants to win. Players start to lose interest in playing the game. We were getting beat by 20 every game so parents start complaining, players start complaining, and before you know it they want you gone. You could really help us front line guys out if you and other high level coaches, who believe in this so strongly, would be working the people running these leagues to implement "no zone" rules. Then a coach doesn't get overrun by the pressure of parents and players to win and can focus on what is really important...teaching the skills necessary to succeed down the line.


    Dimitri Tzoumas says:
    2/23/2012 at 5:07:48 PM

    I agree that man to man is the way to go. Our 3rd grade league encouraged all teams to use man to man exclusively but it didn''t outlaw zone. So, a few teams used zone exclusively and killed us, even though I think we had equal to better talent in some of the games. After about 5 games we decided to use zone when we had two or more "less experienced" kids in the game to gain some confidence. We won the next 2 games which helped the kids gain confidence. We switched back to man to man when we had only more experienced kids on the floor. The big problem with man to man was the less experienced kids didn''t seem capable of finding their man and caused some team members to get angry at them for not covering their man. We were constantly trying to get the less experienced kids to find their man with little success. This situation seemed to break their confidence. The zone alleviated that issue. We plan to work with the less experienced kids next year to gain more confidence in man to man. Man to man is the way to go but I feel that you mustn''t be 100% against mixxing in a zone defense for some kids until they have the mental make up to play man.


    Ken says:
    2/23/2012 at 5:21:07 PM

    Brad -

    You are doing the right thing by your sons when it comes to shooting... you might use this as a rule of thumb ... have them start shooting in close and IF they can shoot around 60%, then they can step back a little bit... keep doing that until they find their opitimum range... while using good form. And YES, you got the idea of the article.... don't worry about Ws & Ls... teach them the game and let tem have fun.

    C Dogg -

    They have it right over there... teach the game the right way. I know that I probably tick some people off by coming on so strong about this issue... but, to me, it IS IMPORTANT.

    Mike TeamX -

    While I like the idea of m2m and staying close to your man... why wouldn't they let them teach basic help and recover defense one pass away? And being on the help line 2 passes away? Which is the bread and butter of a great man defense.
    Maybe make it easier for the offense to execute a little better ?

    Richard -

    I understand where you are coming from... not wanting to get beaten down every game. IF you could get the league to outlaw the zones that would be a great start..... but that probably wont happen.... too many COACHES / PARENTS are into winning, forget developing a kids potential.

    Sit down with your parents and kids and let them know what you are trying to accomplish FOR THEM.... to teach them the right way to play the game and to get them ready to play at the next level. Good luck and stick to your guns.


    Dion says:
    2/23/2012 at 5:42:15 PM

    Great article, I coach youth basketball in Australia and quite a lot of our leagues have a strict "no zone" policy, It's not just about developing your own team and players, zones stunt the development of offensive skills of the opposing team, especially for players up to 12 or 13 years old, playing M2M gives opposition teams the one on one opportunities needed to develop offensive skills in real games, as coaches our motivation should be for the benefit and development of all players, not just the win/loss column.


    Heidi B Horton says:
    2/23/2012 at 5:52:57 PM

    Love this article and MUCH that I have read on your site! Thank you.


    Heidi B Horton says:
    2/23/2012 at 5:53:23 PM

    My name is Heidi Burge Horton, and I am a former PRO player and NOW Youth Fundamental Skills Class Coach (also do “Coaching Clinics for church and Rec leagues around Houston, TX!) I have been working with youth ages 6-18 years old for over 25 years and I was a pro player overseas and in the WNBA. I love how all of the comments on this article wrap up what I have found to be true while coaching these youth! FUN-damentals are what we coach and do at my HOOPS SCHOOL (www.hoops-school.com) in the Houston area. I am originally from Los Angeles, and did play for the LA Sparks back in 1997 (first year of WNBA). My theory that applies to kids in school, adults in jobs and life…and KIDS IN BASKETBALL is just this: You have to have the groundwork or FOOTWORK and hardwork taught EARLY on… in order to BUILD FROM A STRONG FOUNDATION. When I coach youth, we spend 70 out of a 90 minute practice session doing drills on Ball Handling (w/ and w/o defense); shooting; rebounding; passing and TEAM or game concepts of INDIVIDUAL, then TEAM offense and defense! We then “let ‘em play” in game-like situations (1/2 court first, then full court)… BUT ONLY THE LAST 10-15 min. of practice. The kids that “graduate” from Hoops School are the ONES who “understand the game” and excel in whatever team they play on.
    One thing, breakthrough basketball writers and readers: THIS SITE IS AWESOME!! It is so cool to see how many people have commented from ALL SIDES OF THE WORLD on a site that offers practical, encouraging and INFORMATIONAL wisdom on every aspect of this great game of BASKETBALL!
    I love basketball! I love what it has done to MAKE ME WHO I AM… and this can be true of any sport, if you have the right COACHES and personal attitude of hard work, perseverance, discipline, integrity, honesty and diligence to practice practice practice.
    Lastly, do you know that as a PRO player, I was totally floored when I realized WE DID THE SAME DRILLS we used to do in high school…even in my WNBA team practices—we just did them for longer durations and against HARDER COMPETITION!
    My best to you people around the world who give your heart and soul to coach kids, whether in High School or Recreational League Teams!

    If you recognize my name, you may well know me from being one of the Twins in the Disney cable movie “Double Teamed”—Yep! I was the one twin, Heidi, who did NOT want to play basketball… My dad made me play one year..and I ended up making a career of it… Now I still coach and stay involved that way!


    Ken says:
    2/23/2012 at 6:19:18 PM

    I agree with the article. M2M is the preferred defense for teaching younger kids. THe points some made about losing all the games unless they go zone makes it tougher. Most of the time that would not be the case. Zones are banned here until 7th grade and that has long been the case. I think it is ok to start pressing in 7th grade as long as you are required to stop when you get 20 points ahead...that is 7th and 8th grade.


    Robk says:
    2/23/2012 at 7:21:17 PM

    I just finished coaching two 7th grade teams in competitive leagues. I rarely ran into a team that played M2M defense, 90% of the teams played zone. Not only is it boring, it's a huge diservice to the kids and future coaches.

    I think the problem lies with too much emphasis being put on the standings at the younger levels. No one comes up to a coach after he loses a game and congratulates them on playing M2M.

    Discussions like these remind me that I'm doing the right thing. Much appreciated.

    @Heidi - Cool to see you on here. Watched the Disney movies with my kids. Also have friends with twin girls (blonde) and they play b-ball. Told them about the movie, they loved it. I'll have to tell them we crossed paths on a forum.


    Rob says:
    2/23/2012 at 8:03:18 PM

    Here in Québec, m2m is mandatory. Also all the players have to play at least 8 min per game


    coach dunn says:
    2/23/2012 at 8:15:25 PM

    I love the article and agree with the m2m defense for youths. But I have a question about what offense should I be teaching my 3rd grade boys team? I am starting a 3rd grade boys travel team and I have been struggling with exactly what type of offense to run. Any help would be appreciated.


    steve says:
    2/23/2012 at 9:48:18 PM

    Your article is exceptional in logic. How some young coaches don't seem utilize your comments without question is amazing from my previous experience. May I suggest that coaches may want to have their defensive players put a towel or 40inch rope behind their neck and hold on with both hands, to eliminate the temptation to reach for the ball. That solves a lot of bad tendancies.


    Greg says:
    2/23/2012 at 10:31:37 PM

    I think that teaching man to man first is key, then implementing zone. A good understanding of fundamentals in man to man is essential for players to truly understand that zone doesn't mean stand in your area. They learn to man up and ball deny even when in a zone making the zone more effective. If you don't teach both, you really can handicap bball IQ on both ends of reading the floor, help, basketball fundamentals, and simple things like switches. Either way its all philosophy and really can a philosophy be wrong?


    rvp says:
    2/23/2012 at 11:20:45 PM

    I guess I don't understand some of the comments above. Are you coaching basketball for your own ego or are you trying to teach kids to have fun, get better, and have a chance of playing basketball at a higher level when they get older. Worrying about whether you win games at the 3rd to 8th grade level tells me that you should find another hobby. Afraid of getting fired? It takes more skill as a coach to teach proper technique and fundamentals such as good shooting form, how to set a screen and use a screen.


    Andrew f says:
    2/24/2012 at 1:24:00 AM

    Totally agree with playing m2m at early ages. I used to coach zone when my son was in 1st-4th. I did not even consider that it was possible to teach them man to man.

    I have coached my daughters the last 4 years and switched to m2m for the last 2 seasons with 3rd and 4th grade girls. it is absolutely amazing to watch the progression and improvement over the course of a season. We left a lot of players open the first few games and gave up easy baskets. However, in our last game, I only had to remind a girl to guard someone once or twice.

    In some ways, it can be easier to teach a player to play m2m because they stay with one person wherever that player goes. I heard of one league that had different colored flags for each player on the team. Each team had the same set of 5 colors. so, you simply guarded the player with the same color flag.

    I would usually have my most athletic player pick up the girl who brought the ball up the court. Three of the others could guard the three players who had come down to set up. The 4th player took whoever threw the ball in.

    Transition defense is a little tougher, but the girls understood by the end of the season that they needed to guard someone. One of my common sayings was that there are two things that will tell you that you are definitely playing m2m wrong - 1. if you are not guarding a player and 2. if you and someone else are guarding the same player.

    I preached to our parents that winning was not the important thing for 3rd and 4th graders. However, our girls lost 2 of their first 3 games and then won 4 out of the last 5.

    i am definitely drinking the Breakthrough Basketball Kool-Aid and I struggle to understand how other youth coaches are so misguided.


    Jeff Haefner says:
    2/24/2012 at 7:51:32 AM

    Coach Dunn -

    Here are a few articles addressing your offense question:
    http://www.breakthroughbasketball.com/offense/open-post-offense.html (simple pass and cut offense)


    Coach Axel says:
    2/24/2012 at 8:52:06 AM

    Great article. This should be mandatory reading for every youth coach and league in the world.

    I recently switched from coaching grade 7/8 to grade 9/10 and am happy to say that our local league banned zone defences until the 9/10 ages. I was sitting with my team waiting for practice to start and we were watching the 7/8 team practicing. Watching the lower aged kids practice various situations and formations of the same offence we do ignited the conversation about how much time we now have to spend on zones (both defensively and offensively). We didn't run a zone until Christmas but still had to devote practice time to learning how to break it within our motion offence (we run Read and React throughout our club including high school varsity). Since then we've incorporated the 1-1-2-1 amoeba pressure zone to generate more turn-overs as ive noticed that this year our offence hasn't progressed as much as last year due to the amount of practice time that is spent on zone related drills/situations.

    I understand that eventually you need to teach them zone for them to succeed at the "next level" but I would love to see zones pushed back until the college level. Like your article says, an important part of a players development occurs after puberty, but this seems to be the time when we spend less time on fundamentals and more on strategy. If no one in our league ran zone, I would never have spent any time on it and our players would be better offensively ( both as individuals and a team) and defensively.

    Seems a shame that the system is designed to be short-sighted. I think there needs to be increased pressure on youth leagues to set the bar high and hope others will follow. I know when I coached the 7/8 team the past 2 years, even with the ban, there were coaches who used a "loose zone" as they called it. Despite league rules banning zones, the refs could do nothing as their job was to enforce FIBA rules not league rules. Some coaches knew that unless the league was monitoring their game specifically then they could use some zone and get away with it. This meant that they usually waited until important playoff games when they really "needed" to win, knowing that if the got caught the season was basically over anyway.

    Again, great article and hopefully it will make a difference.


    Jeff Haefner says:
    2/24/2012 at 9:16:12 AM

    Coach Axel -

    I know what you're saying. I used to coach 9th graders and spent a lot of time trying to come up with offense to handle all the different zones, etc. However this year I got back to coaching a very inexperienced 9th grade team (it was a lot of fun by the way) and from an offensive standpoint things were totally different...

    We spent almost zero time teaching zone offense and our zone offense was just as effective, if not more effective, than our man offense. We usually score a lot of points against zone. We just ran a simple motion and made slight adjustments to our motion when we played zone. We literally spent 80% of our practice on skills (shooting, finishing under pressure, free throws, dribbling, passing, etc). Very little time was needed teaching offense. It was simple. We played bigger schools every single night and did pretty well. Our improvement during the season exceeded my expectations and made it a lot of fun. Shoot me an email (go to the contact us page) and I can explain the offense we ran.


    WH says:
    2/24/2012 at 9:29:18 AM

    Like many, our program stresses m2m defense at the youth level exclusively. I started coaching our group 4 years ago in 3rd grade and we work on "help" defense in EVERY practice. As 6th graders it is now close to second nature to them, in addition to things like hedging screens and perimeter pressure. It takes repetition, but it works. We are told regularly that we play great defense by other coaches (even though we don't win all of our games).

    This year in 6th grade we started facing more zones so we needed to practice against it. We put our guys in a 2-3 zone with no coaching and they ran it very well - well enough to practice against anyway. We still don't coach it or use it in games but it shows me that having the foundation of m2m allows you to alter your defenses as you get older.

    Final point, our HS varsity team grew up in the same program - all m2m. For a variety of reasons they insituted a zone system half way through this year and turned their season around. Its another example that if you have a good m2m foundation you can adapt to a playing a zone. It's hard to imagine it could work the other way around.


    David Hogg (Scotland) says:
    2/24/2012 at 11:25:11 AM

    Great article.
    Now in the twilight of my coaching career I am coaching a low division Senior squad (because I cant give up) and what bothers me is lack of good basics, including good defence, which players were not taught at an early stage. Most teams at youth level play zone and I think this is because the coaches were not taught how to play good M2M and find it easier to coach zone.
    I am in the process of putting together some thoughts on coaching basics for new coaches and this article has given me a great insight into the zone V m2m question. Thanks to all who posted.


    Coach Dave says:
    2/24/2012 at 11:27:02 AM

    I have been coaching 6th and seventh grade boys for several years now and this is how I get them to play man to man. The boys want to play zone because they see it on TV and like to talk about it, but we were losing games playing pure zone. So now I set them up in a basic 2-3 defense and as their man crosses half court they run out to pick him up and then play man to man. They think they are playing zone but are not. It just starts out that way. I also have the option to switch the coverage if certain boys are getting beat.
    The only time I deviate from this is when I play our center in a “RED DOG” situation and send him out to trap the opposing point guard at half court and the out of bounds line, thus forcing him to make a bad pass. The offense may have an open man at this point but if done quickly this works.


    Jim C says:
    2/24/2012 at 12:04:36 PM

    Thank You! I am tired of youth coaches and parents who care about winning games more than player development.


    Steve Jordan - Coach's Notebook says:
    2/24/2012 at 1:17:52 PM

    Good comments all. Rather than put the pressure on coaches to play m2m at youth levels, put the pressure on the leagues to stipulate rules in the best interests of the kids. For example, teams 10 and under play m2m, no backcourt defense, no double teaming. Simplify the game. Remove the temptation from the coaching wizards who want to win games through tactics rather than skill development. I've had my fill of youth coaches with stacked teams who fuul coutr press less athletic kids all game to prove their coaching prowess. Show me how your players do in the halfcourt game and then I'll know how well you coach.


    Jim says:
    2/24/2012 at 2:34:40 PM

    Having coached at high school and AAU levels
    for thirty some years, I totally agree that m2m is
    the only defense that challenges and improves
    any player.
    Now I have taken on a fifth and sixth grade girls team, and it is a real challenge.
    The thing that makes it so tough is not that they are girls, but the practice time allowed.
    We are a small community and can only get gym
    time maybe, if we are lucky, for 2 hours once a week.We play teams that practice 3 or 4 times a week and are at a great disadvantage.
    There are a lot of schools with this problem all over this country.
    It amazes me that the schools expect to have
    great basketball teams in high school,, but do not realize the need for starting kids at an early age and allowing more gym time to work on the skills needed.
    What can be done to convince school officials of this need.


    Ken says:
    2/24/2012 at 2:43:02 PM

    Jim -

    I guess they are happy with mediocore teams. A team that practices once a week for 2 hours is going nowhere fast.

    I coached high school ball myself... and all the schools around us were having "open gyms" for 5-6 weeks if not more. I was allowed the time after the football season was over and the beginning of basketball... 2 weeks tops.
    When I presented this to the AD he said, well, don't you feel better following the rules? I said NO, we don't even come close to catching up with them until after Christmas. Its not fair to our program. ( our sister schools were doing this also... but we couldn't. )
    You need some school officials that have some sort of background in athletics or have a love for athletics before anything good is going to happen.Good luck.


    Maineakref says:
    2/24/2012 at 7:23:55 PM

    I do have similiar viewpoints on the m2m vs zone defense at the younger levels but with that said as a High school official. I''ve had a first class seat into seeing both defenses implemented from y ball - varsity. I also have coached numerous teams, rarely with returning players other than my son(12 now) and I'' ve spent considerable time each season teaching and using multiple defensive sets even if just as an introduction. To ensure every player I''ve had has an understanding for later in his or her career if they choose to continue playing. Everything I do starts with m2m and zone is used for strategic purposes as well as helping the development of less skilled players improve while playing. With an all inclusive program, I feel it''s best to encourage players to be coachable and attain an enjoyment of hard work and in time the kids will honor each achievement as their skill set increases. {When it's competitive, truth is- if you can't play man to man- you can't play basketball...}


    Jeff says:
    2/24/2012 at 9:31:55 PM

    Coaching junior high girls and boys basketball is truly a challenge in itself. Limited practice time, space, very short season loaded with games, players playing other sports so basketball conditioning begins when the season does. Other commitments. The list is endless and we haven't even taken the court yet. I agree with the concept of playing man, which in the long run helps the athlete. One of the reasons I see so many zones is because to be good at man, you have to have the horses to run. If playing man means a team loses by 30 vs. playing zone and they lose by 17... Losing is difficult, and the junior high game has become so cutthroat, sometimes it's a matter of survival. I always teach man, because even when playing a zone, a player must understand man principles. Having a pack of young pups play man against the big dogs equals a long day at the pound. The zone is the fence.


    betterman1733 says:
    2/25/2012 at 8:59:09 AM

    I am totally agree with the above article. I have been coaching children at ages of 10 to 18 for more than 30 years. I always start teaching man to man defense to the 10 year old kids. As I brought them up till they are in the high school, most of them represents my state and even my country because they are excellent defensive players.
    It is not a good suggestion to teach the youth players zones, presses, trap defenses. It might work at the beginning of a game in which they are still fresh & energetic. It is a problem when they are tired and the press trap defenses are beaten, that is when our defensive players might be facing 1 on 1 man to man defense at the back court! By then, you can notice our players defense will be easily beaten because they are so relying to their team mates to help trapping their opponents!
    The full-court & half-court man to man defense will certainly help the players to develop their responsibilities against their opponents. The zone defenses might adapt lazy players. The lazy players might like the zone defenses because less movements, helps from their team mates all the times and less responsibilities.


    FGK says:
    2/25/2012 at 12:23:23 PM

    Obviously the vast majority of us who are responding to the article are agreeing with its premise. I too absolutely agree and having been influenced/corrupted by Coach Sars postings the last few years I want to provide one anicdote to help make the case.
    I have been a HS girls, JH girls, HS boys, and JH boys coach for the last 26 years in a small rural school. Not all at once, but when I've had the HS girls team I asked to coach the JH girls and when I moved over to the HS boys I also switched to the JH boys.
    Last year when we combined with a neighboring school for HS sports I was made the head HS boys coach, which was fine...however the former head coach at the other school (who incidentally was an administrator) convinced the boards that he should take over the JH boys program as I would be too busy and he had a desire to stay in coaching. Now I will say he was a sound coach...however he believed in teaching a 1-3-1 trapping 1/2 court zone defense and running the flex offense, neither of which I use in HS. I use zones occasionaly as a change up to our man and I run motion.
    I visited with both the JH coach and the decision makers about who would coach the JH team and simply pointed out that I wanted to help get the coach established in JH coaching (which he'd never done) and that after a year of seeing what we did he could then move forward with a better idea of what we needed from kids when they came up to HS in our program.
    Well to make a long story even longer...he was offended I would suggest that...I was shut out of the process...the kids learned the flex and a 1-3-1...and I could barely use them in HS this year. We had a nice freshmen class of about 10 kids, and finally at the end of the season I could use one of them to spell a varsity player for a minute or two a 1/2. We had to spend an entire season just catching them up and working on defensive fundimentals. Oh and I had warned the board who chose to stick him in as the JH coach that low level administrators tend to hop around and leave small rural schools after a year or two and then where would we be when he left. He resigned and moved on after last year...I have the JH back...and hopefully we learned a lesson or two in the process. Bottom line...it wasn't fair to the kids coming in or to the kids who were there and needed some of those freshmen ready to step up. We're too small of a school to just rely on upper classmen...our freshmen needed to contribute, and they just weren't ready!


    Philip says:
    2/25/2012 at 2:29:35 PM

    To the coaches that teach young children, under 6th grade, zone D because they want to win? Ridiculous and a disservice to your kids. If a team has one kid you can''t stop then play better man to man help D. Teach how to collapse into the paint, how to jump the ball handler, pinch and trap when the team sets a pick aggressively, A good m2m should look similar to a zone. A good match up zone would look similar to m2m. I''ve coached all ages, (kinder to HS) and a lack of defensive fundamentals will prevent you from playing any type of defense. Most youth rec leagues locally prevent zone or even back court defense anyway. I teach zone for the occasional twist for older kids (middle school and up) and so we can handle it when we''re on offense. As was said earlier, m2m is the foundation that all other defenses are built upon.


    Ken (aka Coach Sar) says:
    2/25/2012 at 2:48:07 PM

    FG -

    My sales experience must be slipping.. a few years ? Hate to think I corrupted you... haha

    "Obviously the vast majority of us who are responding to the article are agreeing with its premise. I too absolutely agree and having been influenced/corrupted by Coach Sars postings the last few years I want to provide one anicdote to help make the case."

    The bottom line is that you believe that... it took me several years of coaching before I saw the light.

    It sure took me long enough :-) If you read the stuff by Jeff and Joe Haefner, Don Kelbick (and myself) you will find that we are all on the same page. And from your quote "As was said earlier, m2m is the foundation that all other defenses are built upon." IF you CANT guard someone, you cant play the game on the defensive end of the floor.... I think Don K said "and if you cant pass or catch the ball, you cant play the game."

    Maybe they should stop keeping score so some of the coaches & parents wouldn't worry so much about the Ws.

    IF you think that the measure of your worth is your Won and Loss record... you are sadly mistaken. Players win games, coaches teach the kids how to play, but in the end, IF you DON'T have good players...kids that can handle the ball, shoot it and play good defense.... you are in for a long season. I am referring to the HS level (and MS too for that matter.)

    The goals of Youth level coaches should be to teach the kids the fundamentals of the game... pass, catch, shoot the ball (which in itself a tough job for the younger kids) Knowing how to play m2m defense, ON the ball, ONE pass away and TWO passes away for starters. To develop a love for the game and to let them have FUN


    Ken (aka Coach Sar) says:
    2/25/2012 at 3:10:10 PM

    Phillip -

    Why cant we get this across to the parents and the Youth coaches? Why is it so important to get the W at the end of the game rather than the development of their son or daughter?

    (Of course, everyone wants to win.... but at the expense of their development as a player and person?)

    Maybe their should be a form for parents to sign stating that they are more interested in the development of their son/daughter as a player and person before they can enroll in the league.
    Maybe they should have to read threads like this so they can understand WHY certain things should be done. Maybe every league should have the parents and coaches watch the videos by Bog Bigelow Coaching Youth Sports.


    This is one issue that I am very adamant about as you can see, because I think its very important for the development of young people.

    When you go to a high school game and see how some players are acting and playing defense.... you are probably saying... that coach doesn't know what he is doing..... maybe there are SOME like that, but you can bet that the majority of them know the game and how to teach it... but when kids come into high school with no fundamentals, they are light years behind.

    So parents... IF you really want your kids to play at the next level, why don't you go to your league directors and insist that your kids play m2m defense, outlaw pressing at the lower levels. (1-6 grades) so your kids can learn something about the game.


    Curt P says:
    2/25/2012 at 3:42:01 PM

    Currently coaching 5th graders (ages 10-11) and we are mostly just working on basics such as dribbling, form shooting, lay-ups and passing, ETC. We have taught them m2m defense. Some picked it up, others are clueless yet. We have limited practice time and also have put in a 1-3-1 zone. I do agree that m2m is the way to teach basketball. I was brought thru each level learning to play m2m and we had very good ball teams. WE had several players go on an play some college ball. Instead of pushing m2m, we are trying to get basic fundamentals down this year. Until we get each player to learn what a pivot foot or jump stop is, teaching man defense is not an option yet. Believe me wins and losses play no part in how we are trying to coach these young boys. I totally agree that pressing does no one any good at this level. I would even say that in JR high it has no need. I was always told a press actually is a way to hind the fact that you can't play defense or are limited in that area.


    Roy in Pa says:
    2/26/2012 at 7:40:43 AM

    Nice website and article. I think man to man is meant to be taught more at middle school level than the 9 or 10 year old level. Did you ever watch a group of 9 year olds try to play man to man ? It''s helter skelter out there, the kids end up looking lost. You can definetly lose some kids interest in basketball before the middle school level if they constantly lose 40 - 2 .
    You won''t have a team full of athletic kids at any level of community ball before middle school to keep up and try to play man to man. In community ball you get the kids for maybe two and a half hours of practice time a week. I think Zone is the best thing to teach at an early age so the whole team can have success and be competitive. We all know it''s what the kids do off the court that makes them a better player on the court. Your two hours of practice time a week is not going to determine wether or not a kid makes the highschool team at the 9 year old level. But you can keep all the kids interest in basketball by being competative in all games.That keeps them signing up every year for community ball until middleschool time.
    Nothing wrong with mixing in a little man to man if you have the time at practice but to focus on only man to man at too early of an age could be a mistake.


    Ron D. says:
    2/26/2012 at 8:39:46 AM

    I have been coaching mostly youth BB on an off for around 40 yrs, ranging from 4th thru 8th. During this period, I was also a director of a CYO school program, so I know all about limited practice time. During the time I have coached, the first defense I always taught or employed is m2m. My basic reasoning; zone defenses, at some point, employ m2m techniques. So, if you can't play m2m, you will not play good zone. Playing m2m, in my assessment, also teaches the kids to constantly be moving, knowing where their man and ball is at all times, and seeing the whole court. This translates to offense, i.e. you want the kids to see the whole court and move without the ball. I wholeheartily agree with the article and think it is great. I have consistently preached to the kids, "you must play the game not watch it". At the youth level, zone defense teach the kids how to watch the game versus playing the game.


    Scott Nash says:
    2/26/2012 at 2:05:53 PM

    I agree with almost everything in the article. I do take exception to the "zones and zone traps should not be used in middle school" comment. While I agree with this at earlier levels of play, by 8th grade the kids need to learn such tactics and how to beat them. I want to play strictly man defense. The problems arise when they have only been taught zones from ages 7-8 as well as the fact that we are the smallest school in the district and if we play solely man we are only getting them ready to play the limited man they will play in high school. In our county, we are routinely under-sized and the opposition has much more athleticism on a nightly basis. Winning in high school means match-up zones, limited man, and occasional use of zone traps. If we can get better, more experienced coaches at youth levels, whose goals were not primarily winning, it would help coaches on all levels! It's hard to explain to parents and community that you are playing man 90% of the time in 8th grade to prepare them for the maybe 20% of the time they will play it at the next level. Playing both is good because as any coach knows, a good man will help your zone concepts and a good zone will reinforce (some) man principles as well. Thanks for the article! Keep them coming!!


    Ian Treloar says:
    2/27/2012 at 5:43:03 AM

    In South Australia, Australia zone defences are illegal in youth basketball until under 16. In some lower divisions there is also a mercy rule in some competitions so that when a team is up by 20 points at under 10 or under 12 the winning team must drop back behind the half way line. I think the arguments that you mounted for and against are reasonable. South Australia is the only state in Australia to make zones illegal until under 16, this makes it difficult when we play interstate competitions. My personal view is that there needs to be some restriction on zone, press and trap defences> Having coached some teams that at Under 12 level it can be very demoralising to lose by lots cause my team doesn't have the skill to beat a press or a zone. However now that I am coach at under 16s level I enjoy using different defences and in offence my players are encouraged to read the defence and react to it.


    Kevin Monahan says:
    2/27/2012 at 1:14:06 PM

    I just finished my first season as coach of 8-9 year old boys and we played man to man all season. NJB Rules allow for presses during the 5th quarter only and I simply had the boys play man to man defense full court. Only 1 of 10 teams we faced played a man to man defense. Some teams devised defenses to win games versus teaching and practicing good individual defense. We started seeing 1-3-1 and 1-2-2 zones with the point guard being pressured man to man and the ''-3'' set along the foul line to prevent passes to the wings and high post. The boys were too small for long passes into the corner. We used the "put em where they ain''t" offense and I encouraged the boys to go to an open spot for a pass rather than stand in one spot. We found a lot of open shots this way as the back defenders didn''t move around much.
    Nearly all of my coaching was based on Breakthrough Basketball and I structured my practices around the 9 Most Important Things to Teach Youth Players plus the Man to Man defense. Breakthrough is a great website for coaches like me who haven''t played in 25 years. Thanks Joe.


    Lynne says:
    2/28/2012 at 4:05:07 AM

    I coach U12 boys and our program predominantly requires two things for this age group: teaching motion offense and man to man defense. Zones are not allowed at this age. Motion and M2M sets the kids up with the principles of the game and the fundamental skills, fitness and endurance to keep running. When they get into higher levels adapting to other offenses and defenses is easy. I also think we develop tougher players because they are used to taking on a player 1 on 1 all the way, not just waiting for a player to come into their space. We have just finished our grading phase for this year and after 7 games I already notice a huge improvement in the kid's fitness and tenacity.


    Joe Haefner says:
    3/1/2012 at 11:03:38 AM

    Wow! Thank you for all of the feedback. It's great to see so many people passionate about the game of basketball.

    We appreciate every comment. We especially enjoy the comments that challenge our viewpoints which makes everybody better coaches. Don't get me wrong, we enjoyed the overwhelming response of people that agreed with our viewpoints, but we still enjoy to hear different viewpoints because nothing has evolved from groupthink.

    After the comments have trickled in, I hope to present some responses and thoughts to some of the common comments.

    Thanks again!!


    Eric Harvey says:
    3/1/2012 at 10:46:34 PM

    I have been coaching youngsters (boys & girls) in the 12 to 17 years age group, on and off, for about 40 years. It has been my philosophy to start with man principles and work on these exclusively to build up to the full court man that I like to run.

    In my state, in Australia, there is a rule that teams in under 12 & under 14 divisions are not permitted to play zone defenses in competition. This places the onus on coaches to teach man defense to young players.

    As players enter the older age groups, zones are permitted and I like to incorporate a match-up zone in my game plans but, I will not introduce any form of zone defense until I believe my players have a full understanding of my requirements in man defense.


    Danny Prieto says:
    3/9/2012 at 5:14:31 PM

    I have seen teams at a 3rd grade level implement a zone defense. It is basically geared because there are only a few kids that are talented more so than other players. Unfortunately, it just takes away the fundamentals of the "other kids" on the team. It seems as if it just geared towards winning. I have been asked from parents to play a zone. It was clear to me that they just want to win. At such a young age, figure out the worst case scenario: In order to play zone you have to have the fundamentals in place in order to do so effectively. If and when that doesnt work, you have to go back to the fundamentals of man to man. I really appreciate this article.


    Ds says:
    3/10/2012 at 5:27:40 PM

    I wanna play devil''s advocate here. I''ve always heard that good m2m looks like zone & good zone looks like m2m. If thats true (& I believe it is) then the principles it takes to beat zones (skips & outside shooting) are irrelevant. If good m2m is taught then skips are just as valuable yet still just ineffective in youth ball. Same goes for outside shooting. Good m2m still strives to force outside contested shots so we still have the same problem. The problem (& it''s been mentioned once or twice) isn''t so much the zone but poor coaching. Good zone coaching is just as valuable as good m2m coaching & produces smart & athletic players too IF it''s GOOD coaching. The biggest argument in my opinion for m2m is kids knowing it for college & that is a select group of kids.
    Now to those struggling with your players finding their man. This is best solved by leagues like upwards which have all players wear wristbands of different colors & players grd the man with the same color. Of course this doesn''t help if you''re the only one playing m2m! Also to those discussing zone offense, Don Meyer is a big advocate of just running your m2m stuff vs zone. So if you''re running motion-run it & don''t worry about what they are running defensively.


    Jim Brown says:
    3/11/2012 at 2:18:07 AM

    As a high school coach I want our elementary and middle school teams to teach man and teach motion. Once man priniciples are established I can teach zone defense if necesary. Players who learn only zone early have more difficulty learning solid man principles. Also as a man 2 man team I can do anything defensively that I can with a zone by adjusting the degree of pressure we play from denying passing lanes to 4 players in the lane. For youth league coaches if your goal is to help players get better and get ready for varsity competition teach them man. If you aren't comfortable doing that get with your local HS coach and get some pointers.


    Ds says:
    3/11/2012 at 8:13:41 PM

    Another devil's advocate question.
    If you prefer zone at the high school level (which many coaches do) like Al Marshall isn't a little tough to ask your feeder coaches to teach m2m. I mean you're asking coaches to take lumps in the win/loss column in the name of the "process" while you're playing zone when they get to high school with the intention of playing little to no m2m. It just seems kind of wrong to me to say, "hey I need you to teach the kids m2m even though it probably is going to cost you games because it is best for the kids" and then when they get to high school you play almost exclusive zone. I understand if you prefer m2m at the hs level, but don't think it's hardly fair to ask someone else to take lumps for you when you're going to change directions when they get the players. Does this make sense?


    Ken says:
    3/11/2012 at 9:19:33 PM

    Danny Prieto -

    What area did you go to high school?

    Ds -

    Teaching youth players m2m does a lot more than just defense.... they have to learn how to read the defense and other skills. (not to beat this subject to death)

    I think the youth leagues have to ask themsevles these questions.... Are we trying to teach these players the game so they can play at the next level? OR, are we just trying to win games? If it is just winning, then play zones because you will get more doing that. IF it is to help them to be able to play at the next level, then play m2m. Yes, you will "take some lumps."

    A lot of high school teams are going to zones because the kids coming in have little or no concept of m2m defense, especially HELP LINE DEFENSE. Trust me, some where along the line, you will have to be able to guard someone.. and that means playing m2m. JMO


    Joe Haefner says:
    3/12/2012 at 6:52:20 AM

    Thank you for your input, DS. You are correct that zone defense and man defense both need good defensive principles to be successful. Unfortunately, you can get away with bad defensive principles with a zone and still be "successful" in regards to wins and losses. With man, you have to use good defensive principles to be successful.

    Also, you:
    1. Develop better athletes when applied properly.
    2. Smarter players.
    3. Develop less bad habits.

    The article above addresses these points in more detail.

    As for the winning at the youth level, I believe that you coach to develop the players. The players play to win. Winning is a by product of you developing the players. You let the head varsity coach worry about winning. Even when coaching at the high school level, freshmen and JV, I still believe your sole purpose is develop the players and prepare them for the varsity level, unless the varsity coach wants you to use strategies to just win.


    Joe Haefner says:
    3/12/2012 at 6:53:46 AM

    When I was talking about zone defense and bad habits, I was referring to the youth level.


    Jim K, Central PA says:
    3/15/2012 at 9:47:29 PM

    M2M defense is the best/toughest defense in basketball. Zone defenses can be equally as tough. The problem with teaching M2M defense, I feel, to youth programs, that is from early elementary programs to when middle school programs kick in, is a lot of the kids in these programs do not have the athleticism to handle the M2M defenses. In basketball, and I have seen this way too often, all it takes is one or two “atheletes” on a team to wreak havoc on M2M defenses when the opposing team is not as athletic and trying to play M2M defense. Also, as was mentioned in an earlier response, when young kids, boys or girls, try to play M2M it becomes more like helter skelter mixed with football. After having coached youth soccer, little league baseball and youth football teams, I have come to believe that you teach/coach the fundamental skills that will be used by each player later on as that player advances. Begin with simple offense/defense skills that will build confidence in the atheletes. Then as they mature as atheletes, begin introducing more intense, advanced and physically challenging concepts – M2M defenses and offenses. Just like building a block wall, the lower layers are built on to build a complete wall or in the case of basketball a complete basketball player. One that has confidence in his or her abilities. But isn't that the job of a coach, basketball or otherwise, to prepare atheletes for the future.


    Ryan says:
    3/17/2012 at 11:28:32 PM

    Okay, I am a high school coach at a very small high school (230 high school students) and have a feeder program where the coaches are very helpful and try to do what I want. The problem is that to beat the best teams in my district and region we always have to beat teams that are way more athletic than we are. This means that zone is our best option. The only time we go m2m is to shut down great shooters and generally we just go box/1 or triangle/2 when we face them because that is the easiest transition from our zones. With this situation I also have to rely on players who don't "grasp" m2m that well because of all the intricacies it requires. For example this year I had a very good team that was senior laden. I've had this group since 6th grade as I was their middle school coach then and we were a m2m team from 6th grade through their jv years. Even with all that work on m2m our best defenses the last 2 years have been zones because: 1.) I still had players get "lost" in m2m whereas in zone they had less responsibilities, less thinking, and therefore could play faster and with more confidence. 2.) against the more athletic teams we would have been completely outmatched in m2m. On top of all of this we rarely have kids who play after high school so working on m2m exclusively for that reason doesn't really produce enough benefits for the time it requires. With all of this in mind would you still recommend m2m throughout middle school? Even in zone we work a lot on m2m skills such as on the ball d, closeouts, etc. Just curious because I love m2m, but just don't know if requiring it at the lower levels is more beneficial than not when I know that it will rarely be used by me at the high school level to win. Thoughts?


    Ken says:
    3/18/2012 at 7:55:37 AM

    Ryan -

    I do understand where you are coming from. I coached at a larger high school but our talent level was way below a lot of the teams we played in our area.

    The key is simple, somewhere along the line in the game, you are going to have to defend some one - thus - m2m skills are necessary. I loved it when kids came into my program being able to play m2m defense... made our jobs so much easier and we were able to play some man D. I believe that you have to mix your defenses up if you are going to give your kids a chance to win when you are in the situations we are / were in.

    We played m2m on/up the line and a 1-3-1 match up zone. We always started the game in the match up to get the other team to run their zone offense, then when we would switch they weren't always sure when and continued running their zone offense making our man D a lot better. A good zone looks like m2m and I FIRMLY believe that in order to play a good zone you need to understand man prinicpals.

    I think that the youth coaches in your area (grades 1-6) should be teaching and playing m2m defense. Once they get into 7/8th grades, they could mix in some zones as long as they keep teaching man fundamentals. Most youth coaches play zone because it gives them a better chance to win and / or they don't understand how to teach it. ( You could help in this area, hold clinics for those coaches )

    Who cares if they go 30-0 in 4th grade if they cant play high school ball? Don't you think that your teams would be better if they came in knowing how to play m2m defense? ESPECIALLY knowing and understanding HELP D!

    I remember my last year of coaching 7/8th graders and we scrimmaged the high school freshman B team... our helpside was so good they had a hard time running their offense. ( Two of their players came up to me after the scrimmage and told me that )

    Ask yourself this question, as a varsity high school coach, " What would you want them taught? " "What fundamentals would you like them to have when they set foot inside your door? " I think you know MY ANSWER.

    Now, what are YOUR thoughts?

    Good luck


    Joe Haefner says:
    3/19/2012 at 9:12:44 AM

    Ryan, I'm hoping some other coaches chip in their thoughts too, because you will know ours.

    Even in your situation, I would still teach man to man at the lower levels. I think it will create better athletes, better IQ, and form good defensive habits and when you're ready to teach them the zone at the JV or varsity levels, I believe it will be that much more effective.


    Doug R. says:
    9/6/2012 at 7:50:26 PM

    Wow very interesting article. I am very impressed with all of the comments. I am now coaching 6th graders and although I agree with everything your saying I will still go with the 1-2-1-1 full court press that drops into a 2-3 zone. The biggest problem is that time is not on our side. This year the league I am coaching in is cramming multiple games in 1 weekend and they only allow us 1 practice of 1 hour a week. This is the same with many programs across the country. Although many elements of the game are sacrificed due to limited time, the one thing that I will never leave out is the basic fundamentals and tell them to do them at home. Because I have to get in all of the fundamentals, along with offensive plays, scrimage, free throws, and conditioning; we have to play zone. I always include 1 on 1 drills in my practices to build this key skill but in the end, the kids are just not having fun if they are losing. Their spirits are down, confidence is low, and they just are not enjoying the game. And having fun while learning is the most important thing.

    I would know this because last year, I decided to play man to man all season long; no matter what the results. We lost every single game. Our defense was shredded because my players were not as quick or skilled as the opposition. We got rebounds and scored because of our height advantage but that was about it. The kids had lost their confidence by the end of the season and the parents had lost their nerve. This was not my intention so the next season we threw it out to great success.

    I think man to man is the best defense for coaches with time to develop their players but when you only get an hour a week, the options are limited. The kids have fun running the zone and learn the essence of team defence while they learn the skills of 1 to 1 play in practice. You say it is not about winning but when your players do not have the skill set to play man to man defence, it is a recipe for disaster. Often ending up with kids in tears and thats not what we should want. Thats why I believe zone defence should be implemeted while the fundamentals behind man to man should be taught in practice.


    Joe Haefner says:
    9/7/2012 at 10:34:24 AM

    That is a tough situation, Doug. Personally, I wish league administrators would change the rules.

    I would still go man to man because I've seen it work even in your situation. :)

    Defense at that age doesn't take a lot of time. You just need to be demanding of 100% effort and emphasize a few principles based on your team's strengths.

    Here are a few basic ones:
    - Stay between man and the basket.
    - Sprint to spots - Anything less gets you a sit on the bench.
    - On the line, up the line. Half way between man and the ball.
    - Deny all passes inside the 3-point line.
    - 2 Passes away - get on help line.

    I always work on defense first, because it gets the kids locked in and helps when you work on your offense. It also shows to the team what my priorities are.

    Here are some helpful articles as well:






    Jeff Haefner says:
    9/7/2012 at 10:51:35 AM

    Doug and others: Just a few ideas that might help...

    - To save time, avoid teaching offensive patterns and set plays that take a really long time to get players to memorize. Use a free form motion offense that takes 10 minutes to teach. The rest is just learning basic fundamentals that go within the offense (cutting, dribbling, spacing, sealing in post, etc).

    - Condition player during drills and in the context of practice. This saves time and keeps players from sandbagging (because they know they need to save something for running at the end). There are tons of drills out there that allow you to develop skills and condition at the same time.

    - Practice your man to man defense and motion offense at the same time (multi task). It works great. One coach watches offense in a half court setting and the other coach watches defense. It can be half court 3on3, 4on4, or 5on5.

    - Not everyone can win but you can still make things fun. Set goals and celebrate small successes. For example, if you work on shooting form, you can chart their progress and show their improvement in shooting percentage during practice. Celebrate these small successes! Maybe you can also measure things like turnovers, rebounds, and celebrate improving in those areas. Show them how they are improving! See "tactic #6" for several more ideas:

    - Having a good man to man defense is less about having quick players and more about POSITIONING and ANTICIPATION. If players are taught how to play good on ball defense, move on the pass versus the catch, and have great help side positioning, they will be good. In fact, this will make a slow footed team look like they are quick and smothering.

    I hope some of these ideas help!!


    Ken says:
    9/7/2012 at 1:40:09 PM

    Doug -

    If you read my comments to Ryan along with Joe and Jeffs comments, that pretty much says it all. Forget the conditioning - make them practice hard, maybe get rid of the Diamond press and use that time for fundamentals.

    I feel your pain, 1 hour a week doesn't give you a lot of time to accomplish much but your goals should have nothing to do with Ws & Ls.
    It should have a lot to do with preparing them to play at the next level and hopefully play in high school. Ask your players & parents that question..... win now and not play as you get older? OR, be prepared to play at higher levels.

    I helped a young coach with his 7th grade team, they didn't win a lot of games, but several parents told me this after the season.... "some high school coach is going to be very happy with what they know about playing the game."


    Doug R says:
    9/7/2012 at 3:59:53 PM

    I'm going to try to ask the parents if we could schedule another practice off location every week. But in this economy it's probably not going to happen. An hour is definately not enough but I'm going to start giving out our plays at the end of each practice so the kids can be familiar with them by the next practice so less time can be spent on explaining plays and more can be spent on running them and learning the fundamentals.


    Ken says:
    9/7/2012 at 5:40:31 PM

    Dough -

    Maybe you can find someone who will volunteer their site for you and the kids for one hour a week.

    I think you are on the right track, like I said, you have a tough job with 1 hour of practice a week. Maybe while the weather is still nice you can work outside one day a week for a couple of hours.

    Hang in there and God Bless you for working with these kids.


    gael says:
    9/23/2012 at 8:53:18 PM

    This debate about whether you should teach zone defense to youth teams or not is very interesting. In France where I play basket-ball, zone defense is banned for under 14-15 year-old kids, and punishable by technical foul. (Let's say the ban is lifted at high school age). I believe it's the same in a lot of countries in the world.


    scott says:
    10/9/2012 at 2:44:48 PM

    basketball in its purest form is and will always be man to man. when in zone, man principles still apply, youre just confined to an area. ive coached on every level from k-2 to high school. man D is the easiest for me to teach, makes box outs easier, provides more fast break opportunities. Youth basketball coaches that teach this can run teams off the court with kids that can shoot layups.


    Randy N.C. says:
    10/11/2012 at 8:55:23 PM

    this site is great. Man2man is the best teaching tool for kids all ages.


    coachj12233 says:
    11/17/2012 at 12:27:19 AM

    What type of man to man defense are we ultimately talking about here? Is it on the line and up the line denial defense? Is it contain and contest but don''''t overplay? Is it sagging/pack man defense?

    My point is.... Is playing a pack/sagging man to man defense just as bad as playing zone?

    And...If we are all talking about outlawing zones, at what level is it appropriate to play? And how do you justify the "right time" to play zone?

    Some suggest outlawing zones at the youth level, some say you shouldn''''t introduce it until 12/13 years old and some say even high school shouldn''''t have zone. This means only college teams should be allowed but how do you determine that''''s the appropriate age? And if you allow it in college but it''''s illegal (or was until recently) in the NBA then why bother? Should all levels have a defensive 3 second rule?

    I just can''''t come up with a good answer as to WHEN the appropriate age to play zone is and why.


    Ken says:
    11/17/2012 at 11:43:25 AM

    Coach -

    As you point out there are two types of m2m defense.... on/up the line denial or the pack style - both of which Dick Bennett employed at Wisconsin. He started with on/up the line but as teams got quicker he found that the pack style would be more effective for his team.

    As you know, there is more to playing m2m defense than just covering your man.... its all about playing D one pass away... denial would be trying to force turnovers/deflections or just taking them out of their comfort zone.... pack would force you to teach good close out fundamentals....and still put pressure on the ball. Good m2m teams will employ one of these....

    The teams that play GREAT m2m defense are great at playing HELP DEFENSE (two passes away) That forces the offense to play 3 on 5 (maybe 4 on 5 tops depending on what the O is running) The REALLY GREAT defensive teams are excellent communicators.

    As for which one you choose depends on what type of talent you have. I think that if you look back, you will see the Jeff, Joe, myself along with many/some others think that playing zones below the 7th/8th grade level is doing those players a disservice. They need to know the fundamentals of playing m2m defense..... face it, somewhere along the line in a game they are going to have to cover someone.

    When I was a Varsity coach I wanted my freshman to play m2m the majority of the time and teach it in practice, break it down into its parts. I wanted my sophomore teams to teach and run m2m most of the time.... When I coached the sophomore team I taught m2m in practice...and we played some zones but didn''t work on it very much, only when we were running our zone offense. One the varsity level we played on/up the line and a 1-3-1 match up zone ( more of a pack defense ) but this was important that they knew m2m fundamentals.

    Some Varsity coaches have to worry about their jobs so they employ whatever they need to so they can get some Ws. College coaches HAVE to WIN or they are out the door... just like the Pros. Please, don''t bring up another rule for high school games ( 3 second rule ) they have enough dumb stuff now, like not being able to put your foot on the end line on defense to stop an offensive player.

    I cant tell you which one to believe in, but I think that you know which one I believe in. (along with Jeff and Joe) We can only hope to educate younger coaches as to what is important. FKG said I "influenced/corrupted him into our m2m philosophy" haha

    If you look back at Jeff & Joes posts, along with the links they provided you will see where they stand too.

    Ok, I beat this to death long enough, but like I said, you what I believe in. M2m until they reach the 7th & 8th grades. JMO


    Joe Haefner says:
    11/18/2012 at 12:18:40 PM

    First off, we wouldn't even have this discussion if we played more 3v3 at younger ages. I think 12 and under should play 3v3... maybe some 4v4.

    I'm a high school guy when it comes to man to man, but it wouldn't bother me if it started in 7th grade. Right now, we have 3rd grade teams running 1-3-1 half court traps. For sure, I would say NO zone for anybody under the age of 12 (7th grade), but I prefer high school.

    I think you can teach your teams both kinds of defenses. If we are better athletes, I tried to get up and pressure. If we played against a team that had a bunch of great penetrators, we packed it in a bit more.

    I understand your comment about the packline and zone. I've pondered the same thing. In essence, your packing the lane and forcing outside shots with both defenses.

    However, I believe that in the packline, you are forced to be more responsible for your D. Also, you are forced to learn ball-man principles. You won't play good defense otherwise. In a zone, it's the contrary. You can still be effective without being good at both ball and off-ball principles. You can also hide bad defensive players.


    Patrick says:
    11/27/2012 at 2:53:15 AM

    I''ve been coaching in the rec league for 7 years and just this year the school that I work at was able to bring back middle school sports so I will be in charge of that program for 6-8 graders. This year my rec league teams are 3-4 and 5-6 grade boys and 3-4 grade girls

    There is no doubt that my middle school teams that I will be able to practice with everyday of the week will be playing m2m. I can''t wait to see them develop.

    The difference with the rec league is the scheduling. In our league I will get 3 one hour practices before our first game. The first practice is lost to introductions and seeing who can dribble without kicking it. While I completely agree with the m2m principal, I can see the difficulty implementing it in some youth leagues. If you are in a rec league, or any youth league where you can keep the same group of kids for a few years then I say start m2m early on and take your lumps because it is well worth it. Our league, and I''m sure many others aren''t set up that way. I am allowed to draft 3 players(2 since my nephew is automatically placed on my team). The other 7 are randomly place on the team by the league. we get approximately 2 and a half hours of practice before our first game. We play 8 games, have a pizza party, then baseball season starts. I can''t sub for somebody not hustling or giving an effort on D(everybody must play 2 quarters). In the past couple of years I have started transitioning from zone to man during the course of the season. I will teach m2m concepts and strategies from day 1. When we''re working on our offense, the other half are always playing m2m. The first couple of games are usually a standard 2-3. After that we will transition to more of a matchup zone for a couple of games. Ideally the last 2-3 games of the season will be exclusively m2m. This has worked well because by then they will have confidence that they can guard the guy in front of them. It is absolutely difficult to teach solid m2m defense in most rec leagues but not impossible


    AL G says:
    12/4/2012 at 10:58:45 AM

    I coach a 3 & 4 grade travel team for the last 7 years which some such as Bob Bigelow might disagree with. This is a whole another discussion.

    I am trying to do right thing by my kids to make them better basketball players, as a player of this game over 45 years I was win at all cost hated to lose at anything. I have changed my ways as a coach I teach the basics still want to win but not at all costs.

    I see teams at youth age play zone to take advantage of younger players weakness, such as pack it in, make kids that cannot shoot very well because of their age and strength heave ho from the outside and have seen some play 3-2 trap to pray on the weakness of not being the best ball handlers yet, or strong enough to make the long pass over the top.

    So I guess at a young age if winning is your main concern then by all means play zone but if you want to forgo a few wins to make a better basketball player over the long hall play M2M

    "We need to teach the kids how to play the game not how to run plays"

    Times have changed, the world has changed, and so has basketball. Our house league kids play 1 hour practice and 14 minutes of actually game time and I am sure nothing in between unless they play travel team then they might get 7 hours a week.

    When I was there age and older I played all the time any chance I had, why because I loved the game! I really do not see anybody getting any better at things only doing it 1hr 14 minutes a week.

    I tell kids I coach when I was there age I would shovel snow off the court so I could play, I played until my hands turned purple, hurt so bad. They look at me as if I had 3 heads.

    Kids today have so many distractions to name a few Internet, cell phones, texting, TV’s with 100''s of channels, video game systems and computers no reason to leave the house.

    When I was a kid we had neighborhoods there would be 30 kids waiting when supper was over to play something kick the can, hide and seek, tag, basketball, football something, we want outside and played. I had to force my kids to go out and play, but the world is a scary place times have changed.

    As the commercial use to say I love this game!

    AL G.



    cj says:
    12/8/2012 at 5:00:48 PM

    i was asked to coach a 5+6th grade youth team, i hve 3 players who have problems,both physically and mentally. the rules are everyone has to play atleast 10 mins. i they physically cannot play m2m so i have to use 2-3 zone with them, anyother suggestions for a defensive set thatmight work for them, my othe 7 players are quck hard workers so m2m works well with them.


    CoachNorts says:
    12/9/2012 at 8:33:54 PM

    Great website and great discussion on man v Zone...I just took over a 7th grade travel team that has played together since 4th grade..So they are in year 4....Not one kid knew what "help side", "help and recover", jump to the ball, front the cutter meant...There was no communication at all..They had been stuck in zone at 9 years old and are consequently horrendous defenders..ESPECIALLY on ball defenders!!! I told em....no more zone...its time to learn how to play basketball...... Its painful at times but your article reinforced my decision that it will be helpfull in the long run!!!!!


    Ken says:
    12/9/2012 at 8:42:03 PM

    Coach -

    You are doing them a great favor..... maybe after they play for you they will have a better chance once they get into high school.

    You already know how Jeff, Joe, myself and Don Kelbick feel about this issue.

    YOU are going to teach them HOW to REALLY PLAY the GAME!

    Good luck and God Bless you for trying to turn them around.


    Mike R says:
    12/14/2012 at 1:58:29 PM

    Longtime coach here. Great topic.

    Honestly, if you want to be the best youth coach you can be, you have to teach and play M2M. We all have a list of challenges (excuses): players with limited skill sets, limited practice time, pressure to win, other teams playing zone, on and on. As many have said here, you are doing your players a disservice if you are not committed to teaching and using M2M principles.

    It is hard work, but incredibly rewarding. When you have teams fearful of walking into your gym, when you have other coaches asking "how do I get my kids to play like that?", you know you are doing the right thing.

    I have coached teams with very limited skill sets and an incredible lack of size to championships on the strength of our defense alone. Remember great defense creates layups and easy shots.

    Follow this path with confidence and good luck.


    Rich W says:
    1/20/2013 at 12:17:01 AM

    I don't find it surprising that M2M is the preferred defense of youth coaching. I remember my youth rec league growing up, we only played M2M and full court press D.

    I'm coaching a 2nd/3rd/4th grade boys team, and there's 4 teams total. All 3 are more athletically gifted than our team overall, and I only have one kid who can handle the ball on a consistent basis (my nephew and we only practice 1-2 hrs per week.

    I started off with all the fundamentals: Layups, rebounding, ball handling, passing and defensive positioning & sliding.

    We ran M2M our first 2 games, and we lost 17-28, 4-14; the kids just dont guard their man and wanted to swarm to the ball, especially when they were losing (frustration). In the game we lost 4-14, we switched to a 2-3 zone at halftime and to my surprise it helped tremendously; the score in the 2nd half was 2-2.

    We worked in zone in practice this week, and we played 2-1-2 with man full court pressure (only allowed in 4th q to prevent clock milking). We lost 16-17 and 22-23 (buzzer beater). While it was heartbreaking for the kids to lose (We're 0-4 so far this season), they played their best basketball to date, and were making good shot selections/playing better fundamental D.

    While this is my first year coaching, in my limited experience, I think sticking to the fundamentals, especially at this age is important, but you also have to adapt your gameplan to your team to get the most out of your kids. I'm going to try M2M again next year in 5th/6th grade when my nephew moves up.


    Ken says:
    1/20/2013 at 2:57:04 PM

    Rich -

    If you go back and read all the responses from myself, Jeff, Joe and many other coaches you will find that we are FIRM believers about what defense to use.... M2M!

    Don't worry about the Ws & Ls.... its all about teaching them good fundamentals and having FUN.. I know everyone wants to win.... but that shouldn't be the goal. Go back to m2m now and get them ready for next year. Think of how good they will be then.

    You are successful playing zone now because kids cant shoot from the distance zones will give them. Do them a favor, play m2m. JMO


    Aaron Bedard says:
    1/22/2013 at 8:28:13 AM

    As usual, the Breakthrough Basketball articles are timely and applicable to situations I'm currently dealing with. I just explained to my team the importance of playing man to man to develop and improve. Often times coaches, switch to zone because it's easy to "hide" a player that is poor at man to man defense so others can cover up for her. Goal should be to improve the skills of the current poor man to man defender and the man to man principles of the entire team not to hide the poor man to man defender in a zone. Hopefully, we'll all step up to the challenge.


    Tiffany says:
    1/22/2013 at 10:51:54 AM

    We are coaching our boys in 5th/6th grade. Because of this website we have been using the man-to-man defense and it's ok. The biggest issue we'e seeing is the players focusing on only their player. If the offense gets away from one of the defenders they can take it straight to the basket. It's happened many times - too many. Can you make a suggestion for training the kids to watch their own players plus knowing they can interrupt another's play? They are probably tired of us yelling "WHO ARE YOU GUARDING?" from the sidelines too. Sometimes it takes our players a couple baskets to figure out they have to pick a guy.
    Thank you for recognizing parents as volunteers with FT jobs and kids. We do it for the love of our children and the game :)


    Coach W. says:
    1/22/2013 at 11:57:13 AM

    I completely agree. I coach 8th grade boys, and I would love to run a 1-3-1 Match-up defense, but the problem is that my boys have not developed the man-to-man principles to be able to play the matchup the way I want them too. But I watch the younger age groups sitting back in a 2-3 and occasionally pressing, and yes they may win but at a great cost. Another benefit of teaching man-to-man and requiring man-to man in a league is that the players would develop better ball handling skills, passing skills, would know what a screen is, and understand the importance of movement. Against a zone, the players stand still and the best player just dribbles until he gets his shot.


    Ken Sartini says:
    1/22/2013 at 3:08:42 PM

    Take a look at this page -


    We used the term "Pistols" pointing at your man and the ball when you are in help positon.

    At the 5/6th grade level, when the game starts, have your player go up to a player on the other team and say this is my man. When they sub can be a problem... you could have a towel and have him go out on the court and hand it to the kid he is going in for and ask, "who is your man."

    Someone else put a post on here and in their league they have colored wrist bands.... you cover the person with the same color that you have on... subs exchange bands... solves a lot of problems... at least for them.,

    The above page shows 1 & 2 passes away, find a good shell drill online and that will also help your players.... The BEST defensive teams play GREAT helpside defense.

    The BEST offensive teams reverse the ball.... those are the hardest teams to deffend.


    James says:
    1/23/2013 at 10:53:33 AM

    I completely agree! What a great article. I coach a Jr. High Boys team and only teach them m2m. We face a lot of zone but, it's typically very lazy and static. My players have bought in 100% and it shows. Last year, like every other team in the school, they played zone and posted 2 wins. This year, my first here, we're 7-5 and undefeated in our conference.

    What frustrates me is that no other team has ever played m2m in this school. I assist with the Varsity team and they had never played man. When told to go m2m in a game, they initially refused because "we never learned a m2m play"! Grade 12 students that have never learned m2m?? I was incredulous. Surprisingly, when they made the switch they were only outscored by 2 points in the quarter. Guess what? Nobody else teaches m2m or preps for it!

    I will stick to m2m with my Jr. High team always. I teach them how to attack a zone and it's working. Thanks for your tips and insights. I use them and its helping build a better program in this small, frozen Canadian town!


    Jon says:
    1/23/2013 at 12:52:23 PM

    Thanks for bringing this topic up again this year. I coach 7th grade boys in a competitive league and this is the first year we have had to play against zones. My view is to teach agressive man2man defense so even though we are not the quickest most athletic team, our kids are learning footwork and being in athletic positions, and denying the ball (when 1 pass away). We preach help & recover, run a lot shell drills, in order to react where the ball is compared to your man. As far playing against a zone, I love it even when we are always the outsized team. At 7th grade, if your team can move the ball effectively & quickly and find the gaps/seams, especially baseline, you can dominate any zone. *Leave zones for the high school level and up. Allow your kids to develop athletism and become complete players.


    JoeK says:
    1/24/2013 at 12:53:14 AM

    This is my first year coaching 10-11 year old boys. They are very raw and for many this is their first bball experience. I like the m2m only philosophy and believe it will develop better players. I only say two things on the sidelines: "Get back on D!" and "Find you Man!". We end up with a lot of unintentional double teams... One hint that for those players who seem perpetually lost is to tell them if they can't find their man, go inside the key and wait until they see someone uncovered. I call in an Unintentional Help Defense.

    Thanks again for the website and all the great info and input!


    Ken says:
    1/24/2013 at 5:29:05 PM

    Unintentional help defense... I like it.... haha

    Better than an unintentional open lay up. Keep teaching m2m, they will become better players for it.

    There is a lot of information on this site and other sites on the net. Here, all you have to do is ask.

    Good luck.


    Bill says:
    2/1/2013 at 8:54:01 PM

    This may be somewhat off topic, but i'm sure some of you may weigh in. Why is it that a lot of kids or even adults are so concentrated on the offense (and not just organized offense) I mean a couple dribbles and taking shots, yes some kids and adults can make tough shots with a hand in their face or with a defender running out towards then, but we obviously know those aren't the best shots, yet when these said people make these shots everyone thinks they're the best player on the court, and usually I find that players like this take defense off, don't run back on transitions or lumber down court on a fast break. So what gave these people the idea that shooting the ball is what the game is all about, being flashy and not a hard worker, is that due to the emphasis on high scoring volume shooters in the NBA or is it due to kids NOT learning at a young age the true fundamentals of basketball?


    Ken says:
    2/2/2013 at 2:15:10 PM

    Bill -

    I'm not sure where you are going with this.... but here is my best shot.

    To be successful you need to play both ends of the floor.. OFFENSE and DEFENSE. I was a defensive minded coach... but you cant win if you don't have a few people who can put the ball in the hole.
    I believed in reversing the ball to break down the defense.... anyone can play good D for 3, maybe 4 passes.... after that, they lose their enthusiasm.. and just maybe get a little softer or make mistakes. Not sure who said this... "The hardest teams to defend are the one who REVERSE the ball."

    I'm not sure what level you are talking about... but most of the HS and MS games I have seen those kids get the ball down the floor pretty fast. I have seen some good defensive teams and I have seen some GREAT shooters, I mean kids that have PRO + range..... I had some of those, they had the green light.... why not! IF you didn't play D for me, you sat... unless you were a 20 point plus per game shooter... then I will put you on their weakest player.

    One year I was at the state tourney (high school) and these two 8th graders(?) came and sat by me and started asking me some questions... the big one was, what is more important... Offense of Defense... tough call.... here I am in the middle of two kids and they want me to solve their arguement.
    My answer was.... Offense wins games but Defense wins championships.... now the D minded kid had a big smile... and I added... you can play all the D you want.... IF you don't score, you cant win.... I haven't seen a shutout pitched yet in Bball. I made them both happy.

    IF you are talking about the Pros... watch the last quarter and you will see their best game.... It all depends on the team and the situation.

    Anyway, IF you have great shooters, and you trust them, you give them the GREEN LIGHT. I had some kids that were so good from the free throw line, (late in games) we didn't have a guy our spots.

    OK, I hope I confused you now. haha By the way, we worked on fundamentals every day and I don't think that their are many coaches that don't do that..... JMO


    melvin davis says:
    2/16/2013 at 10:40:27 AM

    I agree m2m is a good defense but the area i'm from they pacify the kids. They have to play zone because they can't come out the circle until the ball enters in or the person dribbles in. That's ages 7 to 8 and you can't full court press until the last 2 minutes of the game. That hurts most team when facing taller kids. I've been coaching for 8 years from ages 7 to High school and adults. In my years of coaching defense is my first priority if you want to play for me. The article talks about m2m but everyone can't play m2m. I teach 2-1-2 and 1-3-1 an also press out of the 1-3-1 and had great success doing it. I keep alot of speed instead of not having a big man. My guys play alot of m2m too but we are just that athletic that we can switch and not get hurt playing m2m cause of there athleticism. As a coach the style of play I like is up tempo. I want the opposing team to play me m2m cause I keep ball handlers in my camp. I have a great floor leader to get my team going. We work on fundamentals everyday in practice. I'm like this what ever success you having playing defense zone or m2m keep doing it until they stop it. As a player m2m doesn't define you if your a player or not fundamentals will get you where need to be as athlete. Article was great but it's up to the coach and player the kind of success they won't. Defense is the key for any sport.


    Mike Ross says:
    3/12/2013 at 1:56:56 AM

    Coach 5th-6th Grade girls basketball. In league play there is not back court pressure. So really on defense it is a half court game. Unlike the boys at this age most of the girls skill levels are so low that coaches run simple zone offenses with may some real simple rotations, movement or picks. So movement is so slow a man to man def can look like a zone. (note we practice a lot of m2m in second half of season because the district championship is full court press on a college court). If I start off teaching m2m at the beginning of the season what tips do you have on keeping the girls in the m2m frame of mind in a moving game? During regular league play I use a 2-3 zone, but once the ball handler commits to one of the wing zones we have that player attack the ball handler and post players rotate up to take on the open wing, center drops back into the paint to watch the open low post offensive player and the off ball wing plays a little closer to the top of the key. If the ball handler pushes past the wing either the post player or center move up to take on the ball handler and the wing picks up the open player
    trailing the ball handler. I try really hard to get them to think about where a play might move to, but the offenses we face unlike the boys are not that aggressive. At least not till the District tournament and full court play.


    Ken Sartini says:
    3/12/2013 at 9:04:10 AM

    Mike -

    If you want them to be a m2m frame of mind, play m2m during the regular season. I think you would be doing your players a great service by playing m2m at this age.

    As for tips (not sure what you mean but this was our progression of teaching.)
    1- On the ball defense... keep the ball out of the middle and direct it to a certain area... from the top - to the ft line extended.
    2- One pass away... denial? and then force towards the short corner.
    3- Two passes away... *** HELP LINE ***
    4- Front the post or 3/4 deny whichever you like.
    Thats for starters.... I hope this is what you were looking for, and again, IF you want them to be a good m2m team, you have to play it as your main defense. JMO


    AL G says:
    5/25/2013 at 7:57:33 AM

    How about this D the one that stops the other team from scoring.

    Go with what works for you and your program.


    BW says:
    9/24/2013 at 3:24:30 PM

    In my league, our team has players in 4th-6th grade. Most opposing teams have only 5th and 6th grade players. You just can't ask an unskilled 4th grade girl to try and guard a decent 6th grade girl.

    So we play primarily zone. However, we spend way more time in practice on M2M. We work on implementing our primary zone for about 40 minutes before the first game, then clean it up a bit after that.

    We work on M2M for at least 2 hours with starting with on the ball D, then 1 pass away and then 2 passes away. We do a lot of shell drill stuff. Then I reiterate that we are playing 5 on 5 and not 1 on 1. So, we go over helping in special situations (ie. pick and roll or give and go with a screen). Then we finally get around to supervised scrimmages where we can clean up little things.

    In our 12 game season, we might not play any M2M until the 9th or 10th game, but when they are ready, they are ready to play at a high level. They work hard to protect the paint and defend the post just like they have with their zone defense all year.

    Having zones and M2M to play against helps players understand offensive principals as well. So I am glad that we can play anything in our league.

    That all said, if you are developing players in a league with relatively even skill level team to team and from top to bottom on each team, I would be all for allowing only M2M. It helps limit the time you waste working on offenses to go against multiple defenses instead of fundamentals.


    John says:
    11/15/2013 at 1:44:42 PM

    Great article! So well put what I'd like to communicate to the organizers of our league.

    I'm preparing to make the case that we should not allow defensive pressure outside the three point arc, as was suggested in the article. One argument I've had against this is the fact that a team could "stall" by just holding the ball outside the arc.

    What suggestions (rule variations) do you suggest for getting around this? I have thought of expanding the five second count to require an entry inside the arc every five seconds.

    Also, to eliminate the half-court trap when the ball is brought to the front court, one variation (and possibly would garner more support) would be to not allow pressure outside the arc until the ball has entered the arc once. That first entry would have to happen in the first ten seconds after crossing the time line (in effect "another" ten second rule).

    I'd be very interested in other options to help my proposal carry more weight. Thanks.


    Joe Haefner says:
    11/15/2013 at 3:49:17 PM

    John, I go back and forth on the 3-point line rule.

    In the league I coached that enforced the rule, the ref just said to go. The coaches and everybody understood that they shouldn't stall and none of the coaches cared about the W.

    Personally, I like 3 on 3 leagues for kids under the age of 11. It takes care of most of the issues with youth basketball.


    Coach B says:
    12/21/2013 at 10:54:29 PM

    Great article. I am a 6th Grade AAU Coach and is often faced with the dilmena of man vs. zone.I grew up playing man and followed the greats, Coach K and Knight, both Man2man coaches. I have an athletic team that thrives in a zone strategy. I press not to punish other teams but to get my team engaged immediately. We fall to a 2-3 or 1-3-1. I call my zones 23 or 13 "X" to promote "EXTEND" and "DEFEND" its amazing how teams think the X is something exotic.

    In practice we work on man to man drills, even down to our scrimmages, but man is an arrow in our quiver. I understand that man is critical in one's ability to cover someone but I as a coach have evolved in many ways. Zone is in line with the "team" ball that we teach which in itself is unique to AAU.


    Coach Shawn says:
    1/13/2014 at 4:24:22 PM

    I disagree as I see no problem with playing zone defenses at the youth level.

    I use a 2-3 zone primarily with my 3rd-4th grade teams. We emphasize the following traits:

    1. Hand up on defense
    2. Talking as a unit
    3. Trapping effectively
    4. Boxing out for rebounds
    5. Anticipating and jumping passing lanes
    6. Zone discipline

    My team, which is not the most athletic team by far, has mastered their responsibilities to the point where we rarely allow a shot inside of 10 feet and haven''t given up a layup in 3 games. I cannot say this would happen in man.

    I still teach man principles because I like to do a lot of trapping and matchup zone play to pressure the ball as well as throw in man to mix it up but zone is my bread and butter. Our points allowed defense has significantly dropped while our turnovers and fast break points have increased.

    Having said this, utilizing all defenses provides the best chance to win.


    Ken Sartini says:
    1/13/2014 at 5:18:38 PM

    I think that IF you look back you will know where I stand on this issue. At this age, it should be all about fundamentals,aving FUN, playing m2m D and getting ready to play at the next level.

    IF you want to win, play zones ( because young kids cant shoot well from the perimeter ) and press because they cant handle the ball that well either.

    All I can tell you is that as a high school coach, I loved it when kids came in knowing how to play good m2m D. On the ball, one pass away and then HELP defense..... and were they well versed in the fundamentals of the game. I didn't care how many games they won.as 4,5 ad 6th graders. AS 7th and 8th graders I would like to see them have some success, but not at the cost of good fundamentals, especially D JMO


    Ed Doud says:
    1/14/2014 at 9:35:58 AM

    I totally agree. Our rec league matches up the players by height before the game and that is who each player covers. Only man to man defense is allowed. This is not perfect but is the fairest way. I have concentrated on developing skills at the expense of learning plays. My philosophy is, develop the skills needed and the rest will fall into place.This is my first year coaching and all of my girls can dribble down court and shoot. The main problem I have is getting my smaller players a clean shot when they have to get so close to reach the basket where it is crowded. Great article.Ed


    John says:
    1/17/2014 at 3:01:32 PM

    First I would like to let eveeyone know where I am coming from. I had a very succesful varsity career coaching 15 years. The only zone I implemented was the 1-2-2 and a 2-2-1press. However I mainly played man D. I believe that if you can''t play man D there is no way you can play an effective zone.

    After a few years off I was tasked to coach my daughters 11and 12 year old team last year and this year. As they came up all the prior coaches taught them 2-3 zone. And practice time wasn not an issue. I spent the entire season last year teaching proper man defense. Even at the early stages we won because other teams didn''t know what do as we were the only team playing man D. Our D kept improving and we went undefeated and won the championship. Now I still had teaching to do with man D with my returners this year. Halfway through this year I started teaching the 3-2 matchup with man principals. Now we are trapping half court out of both and they play both very good. Teams don't know what to expect and we still haven''t lost yet. Now my point is there is no way we could play the 3-2 matchup effectively if they didn't know proper man principals after it took over one season to get it executed properly.

    Just my experience.


    Ken Sartini says:
    1/17/2014 at 4:42:37 PM

    John -

    Congratulations on your varsity coaching career and it was nice to hear you say that you spend all that time teaching m2m D...... now this is only my opinion but I wish you were still teaching them m2m D and playing it.

    By the way, I agree with you wholeheartedly... IF they didn't know the m2m fundamentals, they wouldn't be able to play the match up.

    I was also a boys varsity coach... we played m2m on/up the line and a 1-3-1 match up zone. It was a lot of fun doing that and I believe that it kept us in games with teams that had superior talent.


    RickK says:
    1/31/2014 at 7:42:38 PM

    I'm conflicted.
    My experience coaching is very limited but I have been around the game for many years - 30+.
    I agree completely with the individual skills development argument with m2m. But - when I see beginners running around the court with no sense of purpose it makes me wonder which version of coaching is "lazier".
    I believe at this youngest age zone will teach children concepts of positioning, help defense, rebounding, ball movement, boxing out, working as a team etc. much faster and more efficiently. It should not be about wins or losses and after the initial intro to defensive principles I would suggest m2m will definitely develop more complete players and as I said I do agree with almost every argument for m2m.
    BTW I also would love to see a half court 3 on 3, but until then I believe zone instills more structure at the earlest age.


    Ken Sartini says:
    2/1/2014 at 12:06:34 PM

    Rick -

    Sorry to disagree with you on this... but m2m is the best way of teaching kids how to play the game... is it easy? Nope.... it takes time and patience, especially with younger kids... but in the long run, you will be doing them a great favor.

    The earlier they learn the basic skills of playing m2m, the better they will be at it.

    I agree with the 3 on 3 philosophy for young kids, that would force m2m and give the kids more touches and more room to operate. Remember, some where in the game, you will have to cover someone and not just an area.



    Tim Edwards says:
    2/9/2014 at 9:12:31 PM

    Thanks for a good article. I have a couple of comments though...

    1. Superior teams going back into a zone to "help" the opposition rarely works. They still get smashed but just occasionally pull off a lucky perimeter shot. Big deal. That is hardly helping them. The strong team pulling off the dogs, trading players with the weaker team or letting their bench play out most of the game is the best solution.

    2. The most effective offensive strategies for kids are passing, cutting, creating a lead, back door passes, screens etc. If the strong side goes back to a zone to "help" the opposition it effectively prevents them and their coach from working on important basics like leading, screening and going backdoor.

    3. I am a fan of zone defenses but it is certainly true from my experience that junior players who play a two three zone from the very beginning of their playing days are often poor at matching up, closing out, playing help defense and trapping.


    Coach AL says:
    2/21/2014 at 8:52:23 AM

    Well I still am a believer in M2M at the younger levels even though we were beaten by 54 points. Ouch!

    I decided this year at our tournament 3&4 grade boys we would only allow M2M defense, only one organization complained, an organization that has been destroying teams for years playing a 3-2 1/2 court trap. Most teams could not even get the ball across 1/2 court against them. In the past I had teams that could compete and hold their own and sometimes even beating this evil empire as I call them.

    So this so called coach complained playing M2M would only would water down the game, he said this is an all-star team anything should go. This is the mindset of this group and has been for years.

    He chose to prove a point and embarrass my team, coaches, league, and my parents by beating us by 54 points. His point was, does not matter what we play M2M or zone we will destroy you.

    My point these are kids 7 and 10 years old. Why take it out on them If you have problem with me or the tournament rules.There were ways this coach could have made the score more respectable but again he chose not to.

    We have their tournament coming up next week not sure how it will play out.

    Coach AL


    Ken Sartini says:
    2/21/2014 at 9:22:51 AM

    Coach Al -

    This guy is in the game for the wrong reason!! He wants to prove to everyone that he is the next Bobby Knight. As for this guy, you cant control what he does, all you can do is to control your team and do what is best for them.

    At this age, the coach is supposed to teach the kids the fundamentals of the game, a love for the game, some life lessons and let the kids have FUN!
    Just explain to your kids what you are trying to accomplish for them... maybe the parents too.

    I have coached at levels from 6th graders all the way up to boys varsity and I can say that I never went out to embarrass anyone. You could just not invite them back next year?

    I guarantee you that I would much rather have you coach my kids than that guy. We could recommend him for 4th grade coach of the year... or 4th grade coaches hall of fame. He should take up a new line of work, like being a brick layer or something.

    Stick to your guns, teach your kids the right way to play the game and hopefully they will continue to play ball, be able to play at the next level and then at the high school level.

    I went to see my the school I used to coach at play a game. I went early to see the Freshman play. ( I had helped with their team when they were in 7th grade and a little of their 8th grade year. ) When they saw me walk in they came over and shook hands with me and had a smile on their face. This is what its all about... making a difference in their lives.

    Good luck and have fun with that age group.


    Coach AL says:
    2/21/2014 at 10:39:18 AM

    Good stuff Ken! Thanks for the input.

    Coach AL


    Mommanger says:
    3/6/2014 at 1:18:52 PM

    This an extremely useful article for us. Our son is 10. He has been playing with a team that runs zone only. The coach said he wants to run man to man but not all the players have the ability to do this. As your article rightly points out the coach needs to let the kids develop the skill. Our son is the tallest on the team at 5'2 and he is one of the kids that can play man to man. we recently made the decision to switch our son to another team that plays 99% of the time man to man. they run the 1 on 1 drill at the beginnig of every practice for at least 30 minutes. Our son usually guards the point guard and he stays in front of him and does not get lost when the point turns him. Being new to youth basketball this article was really helpful in letting us know we made the right decision by moving our son to another team. Thanks.


    Doctor J's Stuff says:
    4/4/2014 at 12:33:43 AM

    I agree with Ken Sartini - Coach Al's opponent is a trophy hunter. You can NOT teach good fundamentals and habits by playing zone defence. Players coached well in M2M easily adapt to zone (if needed) but the reverse does not apply!

    Start with footwork (shuffles, drop steps etc)
    add a ball & go one-on-one in a narrow corridor. Then build 2 on 2, 3 on 3, 4 on 4 etc.

    If your team is still winning to easily, back off to half way & have your players pick up their man there. Or go beyond to foul line area. They still are playing M2M...


    Ken Sartini says:
    6/10/2014 at 2:30:01 PM

    Check out this video and you will see what playing m2m D is all about.



    BillJ says:
    12/30/2014 at 2:11:18 PM

    Brilliant insights. In just a few weeks this season, we've seen the zone teams in our 11U league win the early games and then start to lose fitness and athleticism while the man-to-man teams look sharper and better all the time. You can literally see which approach is better for the kids' futures (and for the playoffs), and it doesn't take long for the tide to turn. I really wish the influential, elite AAU coaches out there in the youngest age groups would rethink their stale full-court press/2-3 zone formula. Shifting to man-to-man will benefit their programs in the long run, not to mention what it will do for their players.

      1 reply  

    Joe says:
    12/31/2014 at 9:47:30 AM

    Obviously, I couldn't agree more Bill. :)

    The only problem with the "elite" programs developing players the right way is... they don't have to.

    They simply cut the players they did not develop and recruit better players the following years.

    With that being said, I do know "elite" programs that develop players the right way.


    Bill says:
    12/30/2014 at 6:37:51 PM

    Found this website about three years ago when one daughter was 9 and my son was 6. Bought in entirely on m2m immediately and went to read and react offense for both kids team, which is almost a pure motion (switched to pure motion last year - no offensive plays). Most of our girls rec team now play middle school and my son and friends are now dominating the 10 and under league with almost all 9 year olds.

    Most proud of the boys as they play help defense and its so easy for them to find their person and screen them out. Even though we struggle to score against zones, we try to uptempo and completely stop the opponent. Struggle to believe a zone would work any better than good m2m.

      1 reply  

    Joe Haefner says:
    12/31/2014 at 9:48:32 AM

    That's awesome, Bill. Glad to hear that you've had success.


    Mark says:
    1/20/2015 at 8:44:48 PM

    I disagree... The issue at the early ages is the offensive side of the equation. What I have witnessed is players not being able to run an offensive set / rotation rather one kid trying to do a mad scramble around the edge to drive to the basket and throw up a shot. Most of the play is between the free throw lines with constant steals and turnovers


    steve says:
    1/26/2015 at 4:29:25 PM

    I totally disagree with your view. You are not helping any of those kids improve because it seems you are lazy.

      1 reply  

    Joe Haefner says:
    1/26/2015 at 4:39:01 PM

    Thanks for the input, Steve. Could you elaborate on the laziness comment?

    I'm not sure I understand.


    Coach J says:
    1/29/2015 at 9:32:57 AM

    I have been using this site for the past 5 or 6 years and have always recommended it to new coaches. I have also followed this thread for the same time and have found it to be the most lively point of dispute. As someone who has risen through the coaching ranks (from beginning rec up to middle school AAU) through emphasis on defense I have found that the argument for man to man is very strong. My biggest struggle at the low age range (say 5-8 year olds) is that there is too much an emphasis on games and not teaching. I had seasons where there might be a total of 3-5 hours of practice. Since it is the only game and league in town, it is what it is. As the players developed into the 9-10 year old range they develop the ability to play multiple defenses (which I always prefer) including teaching both zones and man so that by the time they reach middle school they are well versed in what their coaches want to play. I teach zones so that they are ready for what the school teams run, but my AAU and CYO practices incorporate defensive man drills exclusively.


    Amy Frederick says:
    2/8/2015 at 8:08:52 PM

    I coach 3rd & 4th grade girls. We have gotten soooo much better as our season has progressed. I totally believe in man (girl) defense but are getting killed on the stack in bounds play on the back side. Thinking about teaching a zone inbounds defense this week.

      1 reply  

    Jeff says:
    2/8/2015 at 8:18:35 PM

    I am coaching 4th grade girls this year. It can be tough to guard inbounds plays. I just teach proper positioning for man to man (its the same as regular half court... the ball is just in a strange place... under the basket). So you just have to practice it a few times so they understand and then of course reinforce throughout the year.

    In our regular defense, unless the player is in the post (where we 3/4 front)... we play half way between the ball and the person we're guarding (seeing ball and player). And we always protect the basket. So you just have to show them positioning and to stay home (don't follow cutters away from the ball). We also have the person guarding the ball sag and protect passes under the basket.

    In our area, none of the tournaments allow zone defenses. But if they did, I still would not play zone because I want them to learn man to man first.

    When playing the stack, that's a situation you may have to show them. Show them the proper defensive position and try to create space in the stack for your defenders (it's better if you can create gaps in the stack so the offensive players are not tight together).

    It took a couple games to get the hang of it, but our 4th graders do pretty good job guarding the inbounds and it rarely hurts us.


    Darnell Williams aka Coach Dee says:
    2/11/2015 at 11:03:14 AM


    I want to say thank you for this article. I have used a lot of materials from your program, and I am just now reading this article and I am so glad I did.

    I love that you include points and counterpoints. I currently coach a 6th grade AAU team and last year was their first year playing. I looked over during tryouts and laughed because I felt sorry for the coach who would have to coach that train wreck. Well, it turned out; I got the job.

    We progressed and did very well after a lot of long days and me thinking at many times what I was doing wrong. Now, we have won a tournament championship and we went on a 15 game win streak. After losing to our rivals, another local team, I felt, it was my fault.

    I had given up on man to man because I felt it would expose the weak girls, but now I am constantly applying these principles and I test ran it on my freshmen girls team and now they are looking good, too.

    Thank You,

    and it has been nice to share this with other coaches/former teammates


    Patrick Meighan says:
    2/12/2015 at 1:38:24 AM

    I was the only coach in my rec league last season (girls ages 9-11) who *didn't* play a zone, and who didn't order his team to swarm/trap the opposing ball handler as she crossed the half-court line (mercifully, fullcourt defense was not allowed in the league). I'd definitely say that my team was at a competitive disadvantage as a result, and we lost almost all of our games, but I really believe that my players improved their skills as the season progressed, even if that improvement didn't register in the W/L standings. And I'd read enough of Bigelow's book to successfully divorce my ego and attitude from my team's place in the league standings, so all good there.

    A real frustration, however, was the general confusion and chaos we would experience at each substitution break (in this league, each team must clear its bench at the midpoint of each quarter). While the other coach (again, invariably coaching zone) could always immediately tell his incoming players exactly what their defensive assignments were, I had to first see which specific players the other team was putting on the floor before I could tell my own players who they were responsible for guarding. This'd sometimes take me a bit of time (maybe, I dunno, 15 or 20 seconds sometimes, maybe a bit more?), which would annoy the refs ("you only get 5 seconds to make your substitution, coach"), and ofttimes forced me to burn a timeout, and just generally made me look like oafish and disorganized.

    So what do y'all do? Anyone got a system or procedure for efficiently assigning 1-on-1 matchup responsibilities in the sort of mass-substitution scenario described above? Your advice would be much appreciated.

      1 reply  

    Jeff says:
    2/12/2015 at 7:03:04 AM

    I'm coaching my daughters 9-10 year old team. Not a rec but not an all star team either.

    From day 1 we have taught them to both point to the player they are guarding and call out their numbers. They are supposed to do this after substitutions and transition defense. We do this in practice and in games. I let them choose who they guard. Then as the game goes I might tell them to switch and guard certain players.

    12 months ago, we probably would have had lots of trouble with a 5 player swap. Today it would not be a problem because they are experienced and have been trained to call out who they are guarding.

    Last year we just substituted two players at a time (max) and gave them towels to hand to the player they were going in for. This helped avoid a lot of confusion. But we did not have the same mass substitution rules as you.

      1 reply  

    Patrick Meighan says:
    2/13/2015 at 8:12:09 AM

    Thanks, Jeff, good insight.

    Anyone else?


    Marcus says:
    3/2/2015 at 12:10:06 AM

    First off, I just want to say that I appreciate this site and the abundance of useful/free information. Great work!

    Now for my rant.....
    I coach at a successful middle school program and run the program from 6th to 8th grade. We place value not only on being competitive and winning games, but on skill development, teaching life lessons that extend beyond basketball, creating relationships, and, of course, having fun. That being said, I believe this notion that running a zone defense is going to severely harm your players' development is nonsense.

    Now yeah, if you only have kids for an hour a week, I suppose throw out zone. Throw out a lot of things. Honestly, I can't imagine players getting better with that time frame either way. I have many kids for 3 years. Some of them play on my AAU team as well, so I'm coaching them 7-8 months out of the year. We typically start by teaching man and 2-3 zone. By 8th grade they're typically comfortable running a 1-2-1-1 or 2-2-1 full court zone press, 1-3-1 half court zone, 2-3 zone, and man defense.

    In my opinion, for a zone defense to be effective, man-to-man principles are still going to be taught. Kids still have to move on the pass, closeout, be in a stance, guard the ball, see ball and man (offensive players coming or going in their "zone"), guard the post, box out/rebound, get back in transition, communicate, etc....

    A couple of fundamentals that we spend time on for our man defense that are typically excluded or differ from zone:

    The zones we run typically have the benefit of automatically getting kids in help position. The concept of help defense is still taught in shell drills for our man. Help the helper is taught/drilled -- and that is tough. Most varsity teams in my area still struggle with this.

    Guarding screens, whether on the ball, cross, staggered, or down/pin down screens are still covered in practice. Our zones usually lead way to fighting through screens or switching. We work on hedging and trapping for man to man purposes.

    1) Develop Athleticism

    I'm not buying that running a zone hurts a player's athletic ability. Again, if a player is doing his job, playing in a zone is just as demanding as man-to-man.

    "They rarely have to move quickly, get down in low stance, or transition from shuffle to cross over defensive movements." - That is not the way I teach my bigs to play in a zone. They should be in a stance with hands up and moving on the pass (just like if we were in man) If any of you coach in leagues that have coaches teaching their players to play defense this way (lazy), then I can understand the negative view of zone defense.

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

    I beg the differ. I believe basketball players develop a better IQ by being exposed to multiple defenses, not just man-to-man. But again, I also believe the majority of fundamentals required to play man are also a necessity in half court zones. 90% of the breakdown/fundamental drills we do translates to both man and zone.

    Having a multiple defenseive system also exposes kids to different strategies offensively - which I believe increases their IQ offensively.

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

    In my opinion, the examples you gave are not a poor reflection of zone defense but of the coaches that are teaching it. These bad habits you mention (lunging out of position for a steal, watching the ball) are not exclusive to zone. In my experience, kids that play strictly man are also prone to these bad habits if not corrected.


    Susan Ziegler says:
    3/28/2015 at 5:43:24 PM

    I'm a single mom who is very proud of my nine year old son. He loves sports and enjoys practicing...to be very honest he does quite well. Today his team was
    in a tournament and his Coach told him not to try and make a basket unless he knows he's going to make it.
    His average is 6-12 points per game and shoots
    25-30% from the free throw. He's not going to grow up and play for a Division 1 School or the NBA, he's nine.
    I've always been told he's a great team player and he has great friends. Any ideas why a Coach would do this?

      1 reply  

    Joe Haefner says:
    3/31/2015 at 5:44:04 PM

    I can see how you might be concerned.

    Maybe he wants your son to look to take better shots?

    Maybe he wants to get more players involved without removing too much aggressiveness?

    Maybe there was miscommunication?

    Ultimately, I would ask the coach in a professional, casual manner. If he feels he is being attacked, he will instantly get defensive.


    Beth says:
    9/12/2015 at 5:52:56 PM

    I was asked to teach man to man with the 8th grade girls this year by the high school coach. With a whopping 6 practices we had our first game and got killed. The fact that most have never played basketball compounds the problem. We are heading back to zone. It is easier to do so I can focus on teaching basic rules like double dribble.
    If they started younger in our town I think mvm would be better. I stills run the mentioned drill so that they can do it if necessary.

      1 reply  

    Joe Haefner says:
    11/16/2015 at 10:50:55 AM

    Beth, I have had this happen to me as well. And I went to a zone defense because it helped me win more games. But I sacrificed the player's long term development for short-term outcomes.

    Since I didn't build that foundation and take the lumps early on, the players never developed great defensive principles. And they were never a good defensive team all the way through high school.

    Personally, I lost by 50 points one year early in the season. Then we came back and almost beat the same team.

    This link below talks about a story where a coach listened to our advice and went from having a winless 6th grade system and getting beat by 25 PPG to being conference champs by 8th grade because they focused on the fundamentals and the man to man defense principles.


    It can be done, but you can't expect it to happen in 6 practices.

    Lay the foundation now and you will set up the kids for success. Keep delaying it like I did and your players will suffer the consequences.


    Jeremy says:
    12/9/2015 at 5:54:52 PM

    I coach a 9-10 yr old boys rec team. Our league requires us to play m2m the first half, but they have to stay within 4 ft of their man and can't double. We are penalized for playing help defense and it encourages teams to seek out matchups against weaker players. The second half of each game, we can play whatever defense we want. I've been playing zone the second half because I'm concerned that it's too confusing to teach a shell m2m defense where they help off the ball, since they can't do that the first half. Thoughts?

      1 reply  

    Jeff says:
    12/13/2015 at 12:17:39 PM

    It sure would be nice if you could teach man to man and play that. That's what I would do. But implementing those restrictions doesn't make sense to me and to be honest I don't know what I would do. Actually I do know what I'd do. I'd find a different league so I could teach kids how to defend the proper way. Or I'd just get a bunch of kids together and play 3on3 until those rules are changed as they get older.


    Wilf says:
    1/9/2016 at 7:46:41 PM

    I am just coming back into coaching after a very long break, sites such as these are a tremendous help - thanks.

    I have not read all of the comments above, but as I was browsing, especially the past entries which are most up to date, several things occurred to me.

    A young player knows when his shooting is on target. 30% isn't. There will be a couple of kids who represent the best longer-range option IN A COMPETITION GAME. The others should have lots of opportunities to develop shooting while understanding that players' roles in a team are usually directed by levels of competence.

    For kids, for anyone?, a competition shot should always be within comfortable range and not under undue pressure. The shot should not be the last-ditch move. It should not be missing a shot that draws coach's comment but taking it in impossible circumstances. Susan should be making sure that her child gets lots of opportunity to shoot in practice and in practice games where missing doesn't matter.

    When I first learned the game in the mid-sixties the Australian coach worked m2m, fast breaks, and full court presses. Our young team was like a striking cobra. The m2m usually delivered quick ball for the fast break. We were not of course enticed by 3-pointers (which kids should be discouraged from taking in training games, at least). Most of our opposition went away heartbroken. Sometimes towards the end of the game we would fall back to a zone to give them a chance to settle and score.

    Never once did anyone attempt to set a screen, and we did not have to deal with that problem. Reality is that evenly matched young teams playing m2m must learn to beat 1 on 1 setting up an overlap, must learn to screen, and must be especially responsive to the need to help out. Where the action occurs far from the basket the risk of a man getting through is a problem. We might withdraw to the outer zone before picking up an attacking player. I see zone defenses as patch up measures at kids' level.

    What really struck me just now is the simple fact that a zone inhabited by 5 huge NBA players is so very different from a zone with 5 little kids. The holes are enormous! So if at this level we are talking about an alternative zone defense, it cannot be something of the nature of a blockade. We used to play "m2m around the zone", lazy perhaps, but not altogether so, especially when we might surprise the opposition by suddenly moving the m2m to pick up farther out.

    We also need to remember that given match-ups where better players are guarded by better players and taller by taller, there will always be someone left out, and if he plays the opposition will know there will always be a 1 on 1 advantage and quick 2 points.

    m2m should be the basic defense for kids, first learned, but to be adapted as needed, ever further developed.


    Derek says:
    1/11/2016 at 10:30:36 PM

    I coach 5th grade, have a fairly strong team and totally agree. We never press, never play zone. It kills me that I have to waste time teaching this when I should be able to spend the time on the basics at this level!

    Nearly 8 out of 10 teams in our top travel division play zone and constantly press!

      1 person liked this. 1 reply  

    Larry says:
    2/24/2016 at 11:27:03 AM

    Derek, I just wanted to chime in on your post. You hit it right on the head. I've watched my boys play, and have coached, for the past 7-8 yrs (K-7). It never fails that there is the coach on the opposite bench that is constantly yelling "2-3", or some version of a zone, and then once they score its, "PRESS, PRESS, PRESS". From there, my team or the other team, has more than a few troubles getting the ball past, or even to, half court. It kills me, but it never fails. The part that is missed by that coach, which should be embarrassing for anyone willing to call themselves a coach, is that everyone in the gym can see what that coach is emphasizing - beating the snot out of your competition in 6th grade or lower (sometimes even Jr High) is what's really important in life. From first-hand experience, I've seen kids/teams dominate youth leagues, and sometimes even Jr High, then get to High School and those same kids/teams are struggling in their league/division - and it ain't due to superior competition. I watched my 6th grader practice with his team one night and they scrimmaged another 6th grade team (with a 5th grade PG). They were "run over" by this other team. It wasn't due to the other team being superior or trapping or pressing or running a zone D. It was due to the kids understanding of the game, the flow, their ball handling skills, passing skills, etc. They didn't shoot any better than my son's team, weren't taller or even bigger. They were just better ball players. What did my son's team do to gain an edge, in comes the mighty zone and press! At one point, the coach for the other team accused our coach of cheating. I know that was a stretch, he ain't cheating just doing a disservice to the kids. I agreed with him, but our team wanted to get their confidence back so they invested in false confidence. We have a PG who can only dribble with his right hand and several players with horrible shot forms, even for youth players. It's a rant/discussion I could go on forever on. Your post sturck a chord with me and felt the need to chime in. God Bless and keep hooping!!!


    David H says:
    1/16/2016 at 11:30:06 AM

    I coach in a 6 year old YMCA league.

    Problem we have is that coaches don't "coach" m2m. Rather, they rely on a wristband scheme where on the day of a game each player wears a colored wristband and guards (or chases around) the other player with matching wristband. No foundamentals. Just chasing, reaching, grabbing and going through the offensive player for the ball.

    They play "m2m" but don't (perhaps not capable) of coaching m2m.

    That's a huge difference.

    Therefore we play a zone as it teaches discipline, hands up (vs. reaching), team defense and is much more controlled basketball where on offense passing the ball to the open man (not throwing it up out of desperation or duress from a swarm of reachers).


    Tim says:
    2/23/2016 at 12:00:53 PM

    Sorry Kirk,

    As a coach and PE teacher for 30 years I have to disagree that 3rd graders can''t learn good man to man principles. They can and will with practice and persistence. It''s interesting that you justify your philosophy by citing that your 5th grade team won first place. If that''s what you hang your hat on it says a lot.


    Dave says:
    2/24/2016 at 8:59:30 AM

    This article speaks to a number of us as evidenced by the response it has generated. As a high school coach I feel that this article should be required reading for anyone who coaches youth basketball, male or female.

    Youth coaches are limited in the time they have with their kids and I can understand how teaching zone principles frees up time to teach offense, but I have been to many a youth game in which the participants know 7 different inbounds plays but sit back in a 2-3 zone all game. I don''t want paint all youth coaches with the same brush but I think there needs to be a re-evaluation of how practice time is spent.

    There has been considerable research done on the concepts of "games approach" to skill development, and I think our youth would is best served when their interest is piqued and they have fun while learning. Sometimes the best way to gain control is to let go a little, and let the kids have fun while learning.


    Miles Kulik says:
    2/24/2016 at 9:13:18 AM

    Thanks Guys for the great information that you share and provide for download. I find the information extremely useful. M2M vs. Zone Debate is something we discuss regularly in our Academy. It is shocking to see how many teams in our division (in Canada under 13 girls) (in US Grade 7) play straight up 2-3. So much so, that I have to teach girls the 2-3 in order to practice against it. They had no idea how to run the defence. We have been strong believers in fundamentals. Some of our girls have been playing for 5 years now and are unbelievable basketball players for such a young age. I agree with some of the sentiments here that its parents, leagues and coaches that worry so much about winning, if they did not, there really wouldn't be a debate here. I read some of your reasons why not to run a zone, why not to run a press. I don't agree that M2M is the only way to build athletic basketball players. And this leads into another debate, are practices for fundamentals or team concept time? We are fortunate where we have 3 practice times a week. So we always make time for fundamentals, always, always. The debate about the age a player is able to learn is also off base. I have seen 12 year old girls at 6' tall, at 4' tall, 5 years of experience and 1 years of experience. I don't think any coach can say, you should or shouldn't teach a certain age group something. Teach them as much as you can. The more information they receive now, the better they are later in life. Teach them that strategies change in life, why shouldn't they change in basketball. Why not teach them M2M if you are a zone believer? Kids are better for it. My team has been a straight M2M team for 3 years now. This is our first year of implementing a press. I love pressing. I see it as a great way to develop fitness, thinking on the fly, and working as a team. But that is not all we do, and the girls on the floor have the freedom to call it off or put it on. Yes, they make mistakes, but so what? We fall back into a match up man, which leads to some easy baskets sometimes. But it is all part of the process. We just launched a half court trap...and the girls will be the ones that put it on or off. Basketball is the greatest sport in the world for girls. Any little rule we put in place, we call it opportunity to succeed. They then decide how to work within that scope. Basketball is so great because of the way it relates to life. And, with the invention of the various IPADS etc...girls need to be in teams more than ever, giving them the opportunity to succeed and struggle. Isn't this exactly what we are debating when we say M2M or zone?


    Coach Koepke says:
    2/24/2016 at 9:30:28 AM

    I think it''s more about pressure Full Court man to man or Dick Bennett packed line man to man .I have Coach over 15 years, I have two older kids that played in college. Now coaching my two younger , kids a third grader and a 7th grader. I definitely have change my thinking and coaching philosophies .if you have coached a younger group of players like 2nd 3rd & 4th graders it''s a lot like soccer one kid has the ball everybody chases the ball they put a lot of pressure on the ball the kids at first over dribble and everybody steals the ball but if you let them progress they learn how to handle the pressure I think sometimes we worry too much about full court I think the kids need to play naturally it''s a full court game why do we try to change that . I think games should be set up for kids to full court man to man. They will learn if they take too many chances they will get beat off the dribble like you said it''s bout athleticism kids want to be athletic they want to run they want a press they want to take the ball but we always back tem off make them pick up at half court feel sorry for the other team when they can''t handle the pressure we should let our young players play natural like you said then develop skills let them play more go figure it out then fine tune them as they get older. just a thought a good packed in man to man looks like a zone you can''t tell the difference pressure defense half court full court is a whole nother ballgame. My point is let the young ones play be athletic press full court man to man trap if they want just let them go .We can teach about traveling , they will figure it out it''s amazing , they will pick the ball up look around before they dribble . If you don''t let him deal with pressure when they were young I guarantee you they''re not going to be able to deal with it when they get in 7th and 8th grade or high school mental toughness need to be learned at a young age how to get through situations how to fail I think we get in the way quite a bit as Coach''s & programs . just a thought learning as I go. always open to new ideas coach Koepke


    todd says:
    2/24/2016 at 9:30:56 AM

    There is nothing INHERENTLY wrong with playing a zone or even a trap. That is, if kids are having fun and the coaches are positive and the rules are the same for everyone, then kids can enjoy and to some degree benefit from the kind of game that results. Granted this will be a chaotic game, full of turnovers, loose balls, jump balls, whistles, transitions and so on. And granted these kids will not learn certain principles and skills AS WELL (or even at all, one could argue) that would serve them at a higher level of play. In other words, it's a different game with fewer direct connections to high-level basketball, but is not "worse" than a child playing, say, lacross with the hopes of having fun and developing SOME athletic skills that will serve her in high school basketball. If you want to argue that youth basketball with a trap defense is less FUN and that a key aspect of youth basketball ought to be preparing kids to play higher level basketball, then it behooves you to campaign to change the RULES of your youth basketball program, including making it small-sided with small balls, low hoops and other developmentally-appropriate adjustments. My point is that we can't have it both ways. We can't play with 10 foot baskets, 5v5, 3-pt line, full court press, screaming fans—heck even the presence of a SCOREBOARD— and everything else that makes it "look" like pro basketball, but expect coaches not to leverage a kind of defense that is effective within this context. Coaches are competitive by nature and we've told our kids in no uncertain terms that winning matters. Good luck with your campaign to get coaches to play man defense! The truth is it's in a much larger context—that of overhauling the game itself and our ideas and messages to kids about competition—that the campaign must be placed.

      1 reply  

    Larry says:
    2/24/2016 at 11:41:08 AM

    You're right, if you just want to have a rec league and it's just about having fun and getting off the couch. Most kids, coaches, parents, athletes, etc. are playing with the hopes of prepping for the future. Not to say they are prepping for university or the pros, but in some aspect they are preparing for better future results. And isn't that what we do as humans anyway. Do you teach your son or daughter about life and what's to come? You use life lessons to teach others how to handle situations. An animal in the wild, the mother that is, teaches her young to hunt and fight....and play. That same animal mother teaches her young how to do it correctly and what will lead to the best success in the future. It's no different with this issue, we want what is best for our children. We all want our kid to be "the kid", the one with the shot, the handles, the passing abilities, the defense. We all want our team to be "the team". If you don't, then you should stick to rec ball or playground ball. Like I tell my boys all the time, they don't documentaries on the winningest Jr High/Youth teams. No one will "care" (i.e. remember or think twice) about your Jr High, or Youth, record as a coach or player. That'll be the day when a coach is hired based on what he accomplished in Youth/Jr High basketball.


    Insane says:
    2/24/2016 at 10:11:47 AM

    If teams used 3on3 and 4on4, then the M2M offense would have sufficient space so players could move freely and give players the playing time needed to develop. The younger players up to 12years of age should definitely use less players and strictly man to man. This gives the players space while their physical skills catch up to their basketball abilities.
    How many coaches hold tryouts and then tell players to show me your zone defensive principals. Players are generally placed in a man to man setup when trying out for high school varsity so coaches can assess what they are able to do when faced with a one on one situation. If you have only 4 players, you play 2on 2. If you have six player 3on3. There is no zone to "HIDE"in. Players execute most of what they learn on the playground or in the gym, m2m, no zone.


    Lamar says:
    2/24/2016 at 11:59:58 AM

    I'm an assistant coach at the high school level at one of the smallest schools in rural America, and I can attest to exactly what Joe is saying. We have kids that haven't learned to play man to man defense 5-8th grades and now we as coaches are having the hardest time trying to develop good 1 on 1, help defense principles. Kids that you can see are athletic, but cannot develop the the foot technique and quickness that develops from the athleticism that is created from learning man to man at the lower levels and we struggle against opposing players that very good offensively. We can't break that bad habits! They move like they're feet are in cement!

    Lower level coaches, please teach man to man, back and over/help style defense!



    Larry says:
    2/24/2016 at 12:24:29 PM

    Youth and Jr High are development leagues, I don't care what ANYONE says. How many times have you been to a Jr High, or Youth, practice and heard the coach talk about implementing something similar to what the local HS does? Or you see that the stuff the Youth/Jr High teams are doing is related to the HS? They are there to develop players. When is a kid supposed to get trained up in all the fundamentals? From birth to 5th grade? That seems like a lot to ask of a newborn or 11 yr old. Most times kids don't start getting uber serious about sports or their sport until HS, if then. My thing is we only have 2-3 good years to teach the kids the fundamentals and the basics of what they'll be doing. After that they develop how they want to, I'm saying this b/c most teenagers have issues with being told what to do and how to do it. Yes, you have ones that will listen to the coach, do what they say, and all that. That's only part of the sport, they need to do things on their own and at least have a good start. If this isn't being taught when they are a sponge, it'll get lost eventually. Add in the fact that most HS coaches are also teachers and they have limited time to work with players. M2M is a basic defense, pick someone and guard them. Zone is guarding a spot, area of the floor, but you are also watching for players being sneaky. Instead of one thing to do, you have thrown in a couple more items. Let's start with the basics, get them great at guarding one person then we can move on to guarding a spot on the floor (that will never move) as well as having to keep an eye on your man or the players on your side.


    Coach Chad says:
    3/2/2016 at 10:43:10 PM

    So, if I bring my 6th grade kids who are from a 1A school in Iowa to a tournament that is predominately against 4A feeder teams, your telling me that man to man defense is the best defense? Nonsense. I'll coach my kids the way I see fit. This article was probably written by someone from a larger urban school that has hundreds if not thousands of kids to choose to form teams. I have 30, and only 9 of them play basketball. How are my smaller kids supposed to compete against the much larger teams? You think that my kids are going to be better players by getting their heads beat in by playing much larger kids while being forced to play man to man? We are simply outsized physically. No, they will lose interest and probably quit if this is what it is going to be like for them. Stop trying to level the playing field by making things 'even'. Stop the limitations on pressing and defense and TEACH THEM THE GAME. Anyone who knows anything about basketball should know that help defense isn't much different than zone defense. And it should also be taught that a good zone defense will work as hard, if not harder than a man to man defense.

      1 reply  

    Joe Haefner says:
    3/5/2016 at 11:23:18 AM

    Coach Chad,

    I (the author of the article) can relate to you because I played and coached in small town Iowa. I was actually sandwiched in between Cedar Rapids, Dubuque, Iowa City, and Davenport. So I know exactly what you mean by competing with these bigger schools.

    This is actually a big reason that I wrote the article. I had this experience multiple times at the youth and high school level. And I made some critical mistakes.

    One thing that helped me is that I was coaching multiple teams each season. I was coaching middle school teams and I was coaching high school teams.

    So I was able to see the results and things that happened with coaching techniques I used. I also got to coach some teams that I never saw before high school. I saw what benefitted the most for the long run and short run.

    I had one experience where I ran zone defenses with a group of kids who weren't as naturally talented. It helped me in the short run win some games.. I think we won about half of our games. But that same group only won 3 games in two seasons at the varsity level. You could just tell that they had awful defensive habits. And since they weren't as naturally talented, it made it harder for them to compete... much harder.

    One of the big reasons was that I gave up on man to man defense and leaned on zone defenses as crutch. It covered up the players' bad habits. It was short-term gratification at the expense of long-term success. I actually know I was part of the problem and still kick myself because I knew better.

    Another situation at the same small school was actually the opposite. I was not the coach of this group, though.

    We had an unbelievably talented group of players relative to youth basketball... They were very good athletes and they matured early. Everybody who has been involved in youth sports knows that the early bloomers tend to dominate youth sports.

    They actually placed 4th in the state AAU tournament against big city all star teams in the 8th grade. I'm sure you can appreciate that feat.

    Well, they ran zone presses, traps, etc....

    To make a long story short, many of the players had poor defensive habits. Andy many high school & college coaches will tell you this... this takes a long time to fix... if you can ever do it.

    The varsity coach actually gave up and just went to a trapping / zone defense their senior season because it was too difficult. This was after having my brother who is a huge MAN to MAN defense guy... spend two years with the group and still could never break the bad defensive habits.

    However, they couldn't get by any more with their bad habits that allowed them to be successful at the lower levels. Players had matured. They had developed skills that allowed them

    They went from beating all of the 3A/4A schools as a 2A school to playing in a 1A/2A conference and going 14-7 while getting knocked out in the first round of playoffs.

    And don't me wrong... I could sit here and try to sell you videos on zone defenses and press breakers... it'd actually probably bring me more business rather than getting everybody ticked off at me.

    But I genuinely feel and know that teaching man to man defense youth levels benefits the athletes the most in the long-run.

    And it's not that I'm anti-zone defense. I believe you should teach the game. However, I believe there are progressions to teaching the game.

    3rd, 4th, 5th, 6th, 7th, 8th graders should spend the majority of their time developing athleticism and skills that will allow them to use the advanced concepts at the high school level. We're not going to teach calculus to a student who doesn't understand basic math.

    I also believe coaches get caught up in the Win rather than the long-term approach. And often, it's because they haven't gone through the entire process yet. That's why I'm trying to help. I've done this multiple times. I've coached in small town Iowa. I've coached youth teams and nationally ranked HS teams in a big city.

    I also advise that you find local tournaments with competition level suited to your team. You can call around. That's what I did. I actually started my own league too.

    As I once heard, everything below high school varsity should have this coaching approach.....

    Players play to win. Coaches coach to develop.

    Even Al Marshall who teaches an aggressive zone defense believes you should teach man to man at the youth levels.

    You'll see him at the state tournament this week with his Cascade Cougars. Third straight year that they've made it. Pretty good for public 2A school.

    You'll also see my alma mater Anamosa playing in the state tournament for the first time ever... they had a group of parents that did exactly what we preach from 3rd grade and up.


    Colleen Carter says:
    3/8/2016 at 4:33:57 PM

    I am coaching in a middle school and using only M2M. I played through high school and perhaps it was just the times (I'm old ;-) but I don't remember ever even learning a zone defense. I loved defense and was my team's go-to "guard" for whoever was the best player on the opposing team - whatever the size or skill. I am straight with my kids and tell them they will learn M2M even though it's harder because I know they want to be better players for life, not just win in 6th grade.

    Nearly every team we play is using zone because they can teach players to stand in the middle of the key with their hands up, but they don't want to take the time to learn through the mistakes that are the best and only way to learn how to really defend. So now, instead of just teaching good fundamentals and motion, I also have to teach specifically how to beat a zone. My girls are still winning games because all of our players are getting better together as a team!

    I would advocate for a 3-5 second defensive violation (maybe 3 is too short for youth), but that would certainly fix some of the problem. We would still have some versions of zones being taught, but it might level the playing field to a certain point. The NJB league (for 5-6thgrade) in our area also mandates M2M for first half of game and allows press only in last period. Sad that we need rules to remind us as coaches to teach the skills of the game instead of how to add to our win record (I have news... The record is not what the kids will remember!)


    Joe says:
    8/4/2017 at 5:20:57 PM

    I couldn't agree more. I've coached 10U boys the past 2 season and I only teach m2m. It's a struggle early on as you try to teach your player the proper fundamentals, such as help defense, but it pays off in the end. At the beginning of each season we will lose games to teams we should beat. But at this age it's about development more than W's & L's. By the end of the season we usually beat all the team we lost to early. We've finished 2nd at in the Texas regional tournament both years and it's mostly because of defense. When everyone one else is playing zone (and they mostly are) it can actually give you an advantage once your kids start to figure things out. None of the other teams run effective m2m offenses, so their offense struggles to score. Meanwhile, our continuity offense works well against both, because we work against m2m in practice and zone during games.

    I really like Bob Bigelow stuff. I'd be a huge advocate of kids playing w/ a smaller ball, lower goals , m2m only and starting with 3 on 3 half court. I think USA basketball would improve immensely in the long run if those changes were instituted across the board.


    Bob Crotty says:
    8/8/2017 at 2:41:00 PM

    Joe -
    Excellent article. When I saw the heading, I was rather surprised, as it appeared to advocate for zone defense at the youth level. My reaction was: WHAT?
    I have been coaching at the Junior High (7th and 8th grades) level for a number of years, and since I figure that in many cases the kids are playing for the first time in an organized environment, we are all about fundamentals, including man-to-man defense. We have a zone press that has a time and purpose, and I coach a little zone (in case of foul trouble, and to familiarize the kids with what they may playing against much of the time). I agree with you 100% that m-t-m is the way to go with kids that are just starting to really learn the game.
    I would like to point out one other reason that m-t-m should be the choice for kids. Rebounding! I am sure that I am not the only coach in the world that finds it like "pulling teeth" to get the kids to box-out, and THEN get the rebound. Tough enough with m-t-m, but more difficult when playing a zone, at least in my experience. Positioning is more difficult and if they are not positioned properly, they are not likely to get the board. Anyway, in the mode of trying to win games, that is one of the reasons that I use very little zone defense.
    Thanks for all the great info.


    DeSmet says:
    10/10/2017 at 10:40:11 PM

    I think you are absolutely correct that at some point in the development of a player, a well rounded player should must be able to play man on man defense. That said at a youth level I believe a well rounded player must also be able to shift to a zone type of defense especially when the offense cannot be stopped entering the key. This often happens when you have one or two defensive players that are weak at man on man. Note; this is very common in youth and high school basketball. At this level think back to a time when basketball was a much simpler game and the fundamentals is what a player relied on. No iso, no dish for a three, or even slam dunk. Ball movement and tough d. They will grow up and develop their game... But at the youth level keep it simple.


    Nate says:
    11/19/2017 at 9:35:31 PM

    Agree on the premise and totally agree on teaching man to man is the most effective way to teach proper defense. That said, when you are playing a team that is twice your size in middle school you don’t have much of a choice. So to paint a box and say everything should be man to man is wrong. (This article doesn’t do that by the way) Winning at the middle school to grade school level shouldn’t be the emphasis at all but what fun is it when you get beat by 30 cause the kids are bigger. There’s a point to a zone and for me that’s it.


    john Lessieu says:
    1/13/2018 at 8:17:54 PM

    Agree with Nate's comment...Because of the dramatic difference in mental and physical maturity from 5th-8th grade the idea of "matching-up" properly can be a nightmare. Too many league options and mystery flighting scenarios has led our team to approach this from the reverse position...We teach basic 2-3 first, then move to a 1-3-1 trap, then to Man.

    When teaching Man, too many boys only understand it as stopping their man, simply because the "mental speed" combined with the "physical speed" that is needed to play it overwhelms them...by teaching the mental aspect of understanding a zone and using proper defensive technique (positioning, stance, etc) then using drills to hopefully condition them into transition of playing good Man D...


    Brad Henry says:
    1/14/2018 at 12:37:21 PM

    Read the article better; no where was it said m-t-m is the only way. It also doesn''t say that zone shouldn''t ever be run. It says that m-t-m should be taught before zone, for a number of reasons. There are a lot of recreational youth coaches out there that run zone because it''s effective, wins games, and IMO is much easier to coach than m-t-m. M-t-m requires more coaching and is much more nuanced than coaching them to plant their rear ends on the elbows and blocks. The kids that are playing against these zones are hampered in their offensive development as much as the kids that employ the zone are hampered in their defensive devlopment; so maybe that''s why it''s so effective on the high school level where you live - the offensive talent doesn''t have and never developed the requisite skills to beat it. Watch what a team who can move the ball, move without the ball, and hit outside shots does to that zone. One of the key markers of future success is the ability to delay gratification. Utilizing tactics with children that fly in the face of that fact does not set them up optimally for future success.


    jeff says:
    1/16/2018 at 3:51:11 PM

    How do you teach m2m to 7 year olds? we have very limited practice time.

      1 reply  

    Jeff says:
    1/16/2018 at 7:03:41 PM

    Start by teaching on-ball defense -- good stance, stay between your player and the basket, etc. We always want some on the ball close enough to touch them.

    Next teach everyone else to be about half way between their player and the ball. This way you don't have to talk much about "1 pass from the ball" and "2 passes from the ball". You can use shell drill and scrimmages to teach this. Teach them to help out and give the basic rule of “Keep the Ball Out of the Lane and as Far From the Basket as Possible”.

    Lastly we teach them to always see their player and the ball. Again shell drill and scrimmages can he used to teach this.

    This is simple and gives you a basic foundation to build on. As you go you teach other things like, always stop the ball, move on flight of the ball, etc, etc.

    We have plenty of DVDs, ebooks, etc that gives more drills and building steps. But in simple context that is what we teach to young kids to keep it simple.


    Ronnie says:
    2/3/2018 at 3:31:46 AM

    How to determine which player to match up playing man to man

      1 reply  

    Jeff says:
    2/10/2018 at 7:55:22 AM

    Usually players match up with (defend) players of similar height and quickness. At the youth level it's usually pretty simple. At higher levels more thought is put into strategic match ups.


    Kevin says:
    4/17/2018 at 4:50:09 PM

    Great article. I just started coaching in a 12U league, used to coach Upwards basketball where there were all kinds of rules about not playing zone, but no steals and other rules like that.

    I started off the season playing MTM and our offense based on playing MTM, mainly motion. But as the season went on, it seemed that 90% of the teams we played were playing a 2-3 zone, and we didn't have enough practice time (Agree with the article on this as well) to get an offense good enough to handle it. My motion offense didn't fit well against the zone, and I decided it would be better to switch to a zone, for the reason mentioned that I would get better attacking a zone if we did it in practice. We started playing zone, and the kids seemed to like it more, but I agree it doesn't help them in the long run. I was planning on this year spending more time up front with them so they could play the zone better, but I am second guessing my plan.

    Do I go into the season playing MTM, but spending a ton of time on offense against a zone? I expect that my team is not as talented as many we play, so I don't want the kids to get discouraged. Thoughts? I have an idea as to your answer.

      1 reply  

    Jeff says:
    4/19/2018 at 6:39:19 AM

    Kevin - Good questions.

    Personally I run motion offense against man and zone defense. When we face zone, we just tweak our motion a little bit. With that said, for some teams I'll teach them a continuity (Don Kelbick's). And some coaches prefer to have an offense intended specifically for zone.

    We start with man to man and run it 100% of the time for several years. I might get another team (that runs zone) to scrimmage us or I might show our players the zone slides (spending about 10 minutes on it) so we can practice offense against it a little bit. But I don't want to spend time trying to teach two defenses to my kids. That just slows things down too much. So we teach all man to man until around 6th to 9th grade level (depending on the development level and their competence playing man to man defense). Then when they are ready (they are REALLY good at man to man) we start teaching zone defense too and play zone defense around 15-30% of the time in games. Our bread and butter is still man but I want kids to learn how to play zone well too. And get good at playing against it.

    We probably see zone about 50% of the time. We do fine most of the time at all grade levels. We probably have above average talent which makes a big difference no matter what defense you face.

    If I were to see zone defense 90% of the time, I might tweak my tactics if I felt my kids were getting too discouraged. I might spend a little more time teaching zone defense so we could practice against it. And I might spend more time with a zone offense. Maybe. I really don't know because I have not been in that position yet. BUT I do know my first choice would be to find a different league or play in different tournaments where I kids had a chance to win a few games and/or see more man to man defense.

    Hope that helps.


    Jude says:
    11/30/2018 at 8:32:35 AM

    To me, the benefits of teaching m2m at the youth level are two-fold. Not only does it give the players a better understanding of defensive fundamentals and promote athleticism in the game, it makes players learn fundamental offensive skills, such as moving without the ball, making good passes, getting the ball in triple threat, etc.

    In addition, most youth players are not strong enough to use proper shooting form from beyond 10-12 feet or so. Playing against a zone, encourages them to chuck it up from the outside where they must "throw" the ball from their hip in order to get it up to the basket. While some players have a good eye for the basket and can make it that way, it does them little good as they begin to grow up.

    In my local community, the youth rec leagues have taken the complete opposite approach, and they have sadly, banned man defense. I have approached the powers to be and explained the issues this was causing. I met much resistance because this was the way it always been done, and it did not need to be changed. I have battled it for some time now, and many are starting to see my point. The older regime (those in charge) are still resisting, and they seem to feel that I have ulterior motives for this.


    Clark says:
    11/30/2018 at 12:11:24 PM

    I've been teaching exclusively man for when kids start to play until they were 10 and can tell you it works. Proper help techniques and doubling in the post works arguably better than zone. I started in Rec ball and have moved to travel. My current team is 7th graders, so we play predominantly man, but have to press a lot because we are small, fast and a deep team. When we half court trap, we drop into a 1-2-2, which is the only zone we play. I may add a 1-3-1 or hybrid zone to mix it up this coming year, but we play 75% man and always when we don't score because it teaches them to stop the ball in transition better.


    Eric says:
    3/2/2019 at 8:58:06 PM

    It's not an either or choice. The article is great fodder for discussion, but what coach out there is exclusively teaching their kids zone, even if they're mostly using it games? Let's just assume, for example, that you were the only team in a league playing zone. Your offense would thus have to be geared against a m2m offense, and in order for that offense to be good, you need to practice against m2m, and in order to practice against m2m, you have to teach m2m.

    I grew up on zone (Australia) and our defense was mostly zone up until around age 10-11 we switched to m2m and competed at elite level in teens through semi pro league. Routinely employed both I don't see huge challenges with making the switch having played and coached it.

    However I do get the point that some junior coaches overly rely on it, and do not teach m2m.


    Eric says:
    3/2/2019 at 8:59:03 PM

    It''s not an either or choice. The article is great fodder for discussion, but what coach out there is exclusively teaching their kids zone, even if they''re mostly using it games? Let''s just assume, for example, that you were the only team in a league playing zone. Your offense would thus have to be geared against a m2m offense, and in order for that offense to be good, you need to practice against m2m, and in order to practice against m2m, you have to teach m2m.

    I grew up on zone (Australia) and our defense was mostly zone up until around age 10-11 we switched to m2m and competed at elite level in teens through semi pro league. Routinely employed both I don''t see huge challenges with making the switch having played and coached it.

    However I do get the point that some junior coaches overly rely on it, and do not teach m2m.


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