Three Reasons NOT to Play Zone Defense

It’s 9:15 pm on a Tuesday night. My phone rings, and it’s a youth coach who wants to talk basketball. I can’t help it. I answer and we have a great discussion about youth development. Towards the end he asks me how I feel about running a zone press back into a box and one in middle school club basketball. I’m completely honest with him-I think that’s a terrible idea.

Before I go any further, let me say a heartfelt thanks to the youth coach who called me and inspired this post. I believe there is great opportunity for growth as #ironsharpensiron through challenging conversations.

However, I don’t think zone defense should be allowed in youth basketball. I believe it hurts the game. I believe it hurts the development of youth players. I believe it allows some coaches to choose not to teach defensive principles. Here are three reasons why I would eliminate zone defense from youth basketball.

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 shoot 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 defesive 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.

It’s sad.

2. Zone defense doesn’t prepare athletes for long-term success.

At the highest levels of play you see the least amount of zone defense.

Let me say that again,..at the highest level of play, with the most skilled players on the floor, you see the least amount of zone defense.

When you have shooting at multiple offensive positions, players that can play in space and know how to move intelligently then a zone is not the most efficient defense. You see more zone in college than in the pro’s, but it is still played less than man to man. And while you’ll see even more zone in high school games, it’s nowhere near as much zone as you see at the youth levels.

Zones work better against less talented players.

Youth basketball should be about developing players for life long success, not winning meaningless games played in front of a few parents.

Every zone that is played at a high level and works well is based on man concepts. It is built with VERY GOOD individual defenders. Syracuse’s matchup zone works so well because of a good coach who TEACHES defensive principles and has VERY LONG, ATHLETIC, DEFENSIVE MINDED players.

Each successful zone is based on active, communicating defenders who understand the positioning, movement, vision, decision making and on ball habits developed from years training how to guard. Well played zones are based on man principles. Man principles, taught first, create good zone defense. Every good coach will tell you that the toughest zone to play against is a well-taught matchup zone with players who have sound defensive habits like the ones listed above.

3. Zone defense robs the opponent of the opportunity for offensive development.

I doubt many coaches have considered this point. Choosing to play a zone defense at the youth level is incredibly selfish and shortsighted. Be good to the game.

When a coach chooses to play zone against a youth team, who again, can’t shoot well from three, has few experienced players and lacks the physical strength to make the long hard passes needed to punish a zone, they rob that team of an opportunity to develop offensively.

A zone defense will lead to the offensive team standing around and watching the one or two good offensive players over-dribble and attempt tough shots against multiple defenders. This creates bad habits for the offensive players-most of the team standing and watching the good players forcing bad shots. The weaker players will touch the ball less, get fewer opportunities to move and lose the joy of the game as they fail to make the shots they are forced to take that are well outside their effective range.

I could go on and on but I know each of us, as educated basketball minds, can come up with many more ways the offense will fail to develop at the youth level while playing against a zone. In fact, you probably face those same challenges when you see zone after zone in the games in which your teams play.

When I coached youth basketball, I always took pride knowing that not only were my players served when they had to play man to man defense, but we were also serving the other team without them knowing it.

I love the game. I want every person who chooses to pursue the game of basketball to enjoy the richness of the game. I want to protect the players, protect the coaches and protect the game.

I know that there will be many coaches that will read this and immidiately begin to justify why their zone is actually good for their players. I challenge you to consider ways to teach players to be great not just find a reason playing a zone is OK.

We can do better. We can do this by changing the rules. One simple change. Protect the game, be better, teach more and DON’T PLAY ZONE.

Tyler Coston

Please join the conversation, let me know what you think. #ironsharpensiron #stayup #nozone

Tyler Coston