I hope this post finds you well and enjoying your season. My theme throughout the season (and really all of youth basketball) is winning the long-game. The tendency in every segment of youth sports is to become so caught up in the now that you adopt a mentality and strategy that hinders development for the later. But we all agree that the later is more important. So we better be careful and think things through.

One simple (and very important) emphasis for basketball in particular is man-to-man defense. I’ll state my belief plainly up front: I believe that every youth league should make zone defenses illegal until the 7th or 8th grade (at the earliest).

Go a step further: I believe that there are three simple changes we could make to youth basketball that would radically impact the development of our kids in a positive way. The first is man-to-man defense. The second is the use of a shot-clock. The third is adjusting our youth game to have less players on the court (especially through 5th or 6th grade).

All three of these items seem radical to a lot of basketball folks in the United States, but they are the norm elsewhere in the world. When I tell my friends from Europe that youth coaches play zone defense with no shot-clock, they are appalled. They often laugh at the stupid Americans.

Frankly, I think they are right to do so. Though we have more basketball talent than anyone in the world (by far!), we fail to develop that talent to the degree we should, because we need to go zone to win today. It’s shortsighted and dumb. There is no getting around it.

As a college coach, I have begun to ask prospective recruits what kind of defense they grew up playing. At the youth level and in college. Why? Because I have found that players who have grown up playing zone defense cannot play for me as much as they should. No matter their size or their offensive talent, they lack something essential to play at the college level.

What do they lack? I’ll highlight two things.

First, they lack a feel for real defense. Zone defense thinks for you. You learn the pattern and how to guard the area and you are done. You keep reading the same situations in the same space over and over again. The only thing you may need to adjust to is knowing who is a better shooter. That’s about it.

Man-to-man is radically different. It literally changes the make-up of a player’s brain, because it puts them in an ever-changing environment. They need to constantly react to feedback on and off the ball in a variety of situations all over the court. They don’t just guard a zone in a specific sort of way. They guard their man and the ball in this spot and that spot in a variety of situations that are constantly changing on any given possession. If you want intelligent players who know how to play, man-to-man is the key.

Second, they fail to learn how to creatively score. Think of zone defense like a child’s puzzle. It’s more than that, but essentially, once you learn how to solve it, you return to those same pieces over and over again. Man-to-man is different. It is essentially an ever-changing puzzle on any given possession. Or at least it should be (when done well).

Again, this changes the brain. Combine it with a shot-clock (ideally!) and you do more to develop players than all the workouts in the world! You create more creative and confident problem-solvers. You promote action and wisdom and imagination on the offensive end. You even promote player-empowerment, because you force young players to make dynamic decisions.

You do all that and more. And though it is tough to understand now, all this gives them the best chance for basketball success in the future.

Is there more? Of course. Does this mean there is no room for zone? Not at all. But that is plenty to highlight for now. Suffice it to say that we are emphasizing man-to-man for the long-term good of all your young players!

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