Each time I walk into a club basketball tournament, I see countless teams playing some sort of zone defense, regardless of their age. Now understandably, when it comes to U16 or older, this strategy is justifiable as players by this age should have had enough practice, experience, and knowledge of how a zone defense works. But when I see young kids using this method of defense, a primitive “WHY!!!” and “AGGGH!!!” goes off inside my head.
Why Do Youth Basketball Teams Run Zone Defenses?
So why is it that so many youth basketball teams implement zone defenses, and why is it detrimental to the development of young athletes?
The answer to the first question is simple. Despite the fact that, at best, kids might win a tournament t-shirt, coaches want to win at all costs, even if that means that they are negatively impacting the game for both teams. Knowing that most young kids are incapable of channeling their inner Splash Brother and draining one from downtown, or they are either not strong enough to be able to skip a pass across court or headman it downcourt before the defense gets set up, coaches who enforce a zone defense as their main strategy for stopping the other team from scoring are not only robbing their players from developing but the opposing team from being able to play the game.
What are Youth Athletes Really Learning from Zone Defense?
So, with that being said, is it the defensive team really getting a stop, or is it the fact that the offensive team is just not physically capable? Whatever the case, neither team really wins in this scenario. While the defensive team may “stop” the offense from scoring, is it really due to their ability to defend or the offense’s inability to hit the long-distance shot?
Rather than teaching and enforcing proper defensive skills, coaches appear content to implement a mob-like mentality rather than assisting their players in becoming better fundamental players. Yes, basketball is a team game, and yes, it is perfectly fine to teach help-side defense (the old school, 1-2-3 passes away), but ultimately these coaches and players are developing poor basketball habits. As a coach, take a look at the following list and ask yourself if your youth team experiences any of these defensive characteristics:
- Uninspired on-ball defense
- Poor defensive stance and lack of attention away from the ball
- Minimal communication among teammates
- Poor defensive movement and reaction time
- The inability for players to experience guarding different positions/areas (bigs on guards, guards on bigs)
- Minimal opportunities to learn how to guard/defend a screen play
- Poor boxing out and rebounding fundamentals
- Inability to stop the headman pass and guard the transition offense
- Minimal intensity and enjoyment
On more than one occasion, I have had players on my U16 team ask me if we can play zone (either a 1-2-2 or 2-3, both of which we will sometimes run as a means of mixing things up, however, our main strategy is man-to-man). I asked why, as our team was doing fine playing man. Their response was, “because it is easier.”
There is a high probability that as a youth coach, you have nodded your head to at least 75% of those facts.
Why Do Youth Basketball Coaches Continue to Run Zone Defenses?
Because winning trumps everything.
- Winning makes everyone happy, coaches, players, parents, sponsors
- It allows their team to gain recognition for winning games and tournaments
- Winning can lead to higher profile jobs
- Winning keeps players from leaving to join other teams
- It makes you look like a smart and capable coach
Why is Zone Defense Considered Bad if So Many Coaches are Using It?
Before we tackle the list of reasons why zone defense is bad for youth basketball, the question that coaches need to ask themselves is, does winning trump player development? Sure, you may have won that U10 Championship t-shirt, but did you help your kids become better players so that when they get to the high school or college level, they understand the basic fundamentals their coaches seek?
Check out this video from former NBA coach Stan Van Gundy
Youth Basketball Should Be FUN
First and most importantly, basketball at a young age should be fun. There should be lots of ball movement, lots of dribbling, and lots of player movement. If most of the game consists of missed shots and turnovers because the offensive team is too far from the hoop, then nobody is really having a good time. Think about how many kids will go on to play high school or college or at the pro level. Now think about how many more will play on the playground or at the rec center in a pick-up game. There are no zone defenses at the park or at your local gym.
Eliminate Bad Defensive Habits
Secondly, without understanding proper man-to-man defense skills, relying on a zone defense will create bad defensive habits, as we already touched on, allowing kids to think that they are playing quality defense when they are really not.
Having the responsibility of defending what amounts to maybe an 8×8 space, takes far less effort and athletic ability than having to chase a waterbug guard all over the floor or strength to battle a bigger, stronger post player.
Breaking Down the Zone
Third, as kids get older and become more athletic, skilled, and knowledgeable about the game, they are likely to become better at breaking down the zone. But what about Jim Boeheim and his famed zone defense with the Syracuse Orange? If you are comparing yourself and your youth team to a Hall of Fame coach and a top-tier Division 1 NCAA program, you should not be coaching youth basketball. Boeheim takes players who already have a strong understanding and ability to play man-to-man, a strategy which he also uses in his defensive playbook.
In itself, zone defense is a vital part of many coaches’ basketball playbooks; however, in the best interest of growing the game and creating better basketball players, rather than winning what amounts to a meaningless youth game, coaches need to do a better job at developing well-rounded players.