Many youth basketball coaches rely on zone defenses because they think they don’t have enough time to teach man-to-man fundamentals. But to play good zone defense, players – in addition to learning how to play their individual roles in the zone – must also have sound man-to-man defensive skills (lateral movement, close-out technique, passing lane anticipation, etc.). In the end, it takes just as much time if not more to teach players how to play zone defense, if done properly. What happens, though, too often, is that youth coaches skip the man defensive fundamentals. Marginal zone defenses can work at the intermediate youth level, but this is short-sighted thinking. What about our players’ progress for the future?
I mention all this now in this blog entry because I recently came across a few online articles about zone defenses in youth leagues. I came across these as I was searching for information about a rumor I heard: that Japan might ban zone defenses for youth players up to age 12.
- This first article promotes the Sabers way of thinking about coaching man defenses.
- This document comes from Basketball Australia, which has banned zone defenses for U14 competitions. Read part 2 of the document for the rationale, which includes this paragraph. The rationale for the introduction of the “no zone” (in the half court) rule is that zone defences at those age groups can limit the development of individual and team skills. For example, driving opportunities are limited and players often do not have the muscular strength and coordination to shoot, with good technique, from the perimeter or throw “skip” passes. This reduces the need for defensive skills such as “closing out” and positioning.
- The next article takes a more nuanced view and argues strongly that zone defenses are not the problem. The author makes an interesting argument for more 3-on-3 and 4-on-4 games for young players – more space, more touches.
- This next article mentions the possibility that Japan might ban zone defenses for youth teams. (I am told by a reliable source that this has indeed already happened for elementary-age basketball in Japan.)
- This final article addresses some overall problems with basketball in Japan. Skip to about the 20th paragraph, halfway through the article, for comments specific to youth basketball in Japan. (I’ve copied and pasted this section below.) I have witnessed many times what is described here and wondered if I was the only one who found it odd. (Youth teams leading by 50+ points and still full-court pressing with starters, with 20 players sitting on the bench – and with the losing coach NOT getting upset at all!)
“Most Japanese basketball problems are systemic,” one longtime hoop insider said. “Unless you change the system, nothing will improve.”
So where does one begin to make changes?
It starts at the bottom, where a player’s formative years are crucial to his development.
“Mini basketball is the foundation, but it mostly exists so the coaches can win tournaments,” the source said. “It’s not a truly developmental level. For example, many youth leagues in the U.S. are very age specific, limit the number per team, prohibit full-court pressure — for all or most of the game — allow only man-to-man defense, or limited zone, and often require that everyone plays two quarters per game, or something similar.
“Mini basketball in Japan, however, consists of large numbers per team, a big gap in ages, second-graders on the same team as sixth-graders, so while they practice a lot, many kids never actually play in a game, and because almost everything is tournament style, the coaches always play the best players to try to win, the marginal players get little or no playing time, and pity the inexperienced team that has to face the full-court press.”
Truth be told, this lousy setup is familiar to players at the higher levels, too. “It becomes the same thing in junior high and high school, even college,” the source said. “Whereas a U.S. high school might have four teams — freshman, sophomore, JV, varsity — a school in Japan has one team. So many players practice, but never play in a real game.
“When this happens at every level, mini basketball, junior high, high school, and college, it’s easy to see that many players who might have had potential are lost along the way. Even the good players are often a couple of years behind their American or European counterparts at the same age just in terms of experience and playing time.
“I could go on and on about the level of coaching at the lower levels, the lack of baskets that prevent players from practicing individual skills, the fact that good young players aren’t encouraged to go study and play abroad, the fact that the year-round schedule and tournament schedules prevent almost all players from even going to a basketball camp in the U.S. to acquire new skills and knowledge.”