Zone defenses don’t develop great defenders.
That’s why USA Basketball recently recommended zone defenses be avoided for youth players between the ages of 7 and 11.
“Removing zone defense from play among younger age segments encourages movement and physical activity, and promotes the development of individual defensive skills related to guarding a player both on and off the ball,” the organization wrote in a statement earlier this year.
A zone defense requires a player to be responsible for one space, or “zone,” of the court. There a number of different ways these zones can be arranged, but that’s the basic principle of a zone system. The alternative is a man-to-man defense, where defenders are responsible for guarding individual players rather than spaces. For young players where skill development and fun should be the top priorities, consistently employing a zone defense presents some big problems.
“A zone defense, it doesn’t hold kids accountable for playing defense. They just kinda have to stand there and don’t guard anybody, basically,” Don Showalter, Director of Coach Development for USA Basketball, recently told STACK at a Cavaliers Academy camp in Strongsville, Ohio. “If you play zone defense as a young player, that tells us the coach is only concerned with winning. Because generally, there are going to be one or two bigger players in that age group who can dominate if they just stand by the basket. They don’t learn the footwork needed to go outside of that. We really emphasize playing man-to-man up until 7th grade, then mix in some zone. The international guidelines are a little more stringent than ours in the United States. They don’t let their kids play any zone until 14. I think there’s a lot said for that.”
From a developmental standpoint, playing in a man-to-man system at an early age offers several key benefits. It helps players develop better agility, better spatial awareness, better footwork and a more versatile defensive skillset. It allows young kids to practice defense both on the perimeter and in the paint, develop defensive rebounding skills, and simply be more active and engaged in the game than they’d likely be in a zone defense.
“A zone will let one player dominate and the other four stand around,” Showalter says. “The big player’s going to get the rebound. Nine times out of 10, when he gets the rebound, he’s going to dribble down the court all himself, and he’s generally a bigger player, so everybody gets out of the way, then he shoots it five or six times until it goes in, and no one else has a chance to touch the basketball.”
Doesn’t sound so fun for the other kids on the court, does it? Nor does it sound like they’re getting any better on either end of the floor.
If players aren’t having any fun, they’re likely to quit the sport all together. Do we really want to jeopardize a young player’s future in the sport just because they’re not the tallest 8-year-old on their team?
The argument for the elimination of the zone at the youth level boils down to winning games vs. developing players for the future. Now that is not to say that playing a zone will immediately lead to more wins, and man-to-man means more losses. However, the potential cost of winning games here is the benefit of your players in learning the game and building skills. You can read a deeper explanation of the differences between a zone and man defense here.
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