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Zone defense in youth basketball - a BIG NO NO!!!

Several years ago I was running a clinic for coaches at one of the local community centers. One part of my clinic covered teaching the basics of defense. Coming from Europe it was and still is natural for me that zone defense doesn't exist in youth basketball until at least 7th grade for obvious (at least form me) reasons.

I have to admit, I was very surprised when one of the dad coaches started arguing with me about the implementation of zone defense in youth basketball.

Here are a few reason why we CAN'T use zone defense with the youngest.

1. Zone defense doesn’t teach good defensive habits.

In youth basketball there are usually one or two strong players on a team. A zone defense should be one player guarding the ball and four players helping guard the ball. However, in youth basketball zone defense turns into one player jumping out of position and going for steals while their teammates stand and watch that happen. The other four players end up standing still, upright, plugging the lane and ignoring the other four offensive players who aren’t strong enough to s

hoot from outside the three point line yet.

It takes a much more experienced coach to teach an active, communicating, moving, aware, physical zone defense. Most youth players on youth teams have yet to develop a strong skill set, let alone the physical strength to execute those skills. Therefore most youth coaches and their teams tend to default into a zone in order to get cheap wins against teams that are playing with a three-point line that is too far out for the age and stage of the athlete. A zone defense does not demand the individuals in the zone to give effort or learn sound defensive principles.

The decision to play zone is

even worse in practice. There players will be guarding a weaker second-string player on their own team. This results in poor off ball positioning, inadequate defensive awareness, diluted on-ball habits, less accountability and little to no communication. Let’s list the poor habits zone defenses in youth basketball tend to promote:

  1. Lazy on ball defense

  2. Standing and watching off ball

  3. Poor closeout technique

  4. Little accountability

  5. Lack of communication

  6. Minimal movement on defense

  7. Fewer opportunities to guard different positions and areas of the floor

  8. Fewer opportunities to practice communication in defensive transition

  9. Fewer opportunities to practice decision making in defensive transition

  10. Reduced accountability on box outs

  11. Fewer decisions while playing help defensive decisions

  12. Decreased repetitions of defensive rotations.

  13. Fewer opportunities to learn what is acceptable defensive risk taking

  14. Minimal opportunities to guard screens

  15. Fewer opportunities for bigger players to guard the ball

Each of the above reasons not to play zone are also many of the same reasons some coaches choose to play zone. While some see the above situations avoided by playing a zone as averted disasters, instead, I see each of them as missed learning opportunities. Some coaches want to hide weak players rather than developing them. Some decide to remove decisions from players, which allow them to get away with poor habits. Instead of teaching players good habits, some coaches choose to play a defense that allows them to be successful(i.e. wins) without first building these key habits.