Why Man to Man Is Best in Youth Leagues

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Youth basketball programs should utilize man to man defense exclusively. This is not because it is the best defense to play, although it often proves to be, but because it is the best developmental defense to play.

Defensive Skills

First, to play man to man you have to teach basic defensive fundamentals that are needed for any defensive scheme. You have to learn defensive position. You must keep your feet spread shoulder length, be balanced, keep your hand in the dribbling lane, slide without crossing your legs, and learn to drop step when a player reverse dribbles. You also have to learn to give defensive help, rotate to the ball (depending on your level of sophistication), deny passing lanes, front cutters and utilize a variety of other skills. All of these are also used when you play zone but are much more teachable through man to man. You can teach each skill individually and build up to the complete picture.

These skills are best mastered at an early age. Once they are mastered through repetition, then if the high school coach plays zone, players have the skills to fit in. If the high school coach plays man to man, the players are prepared as well.

Offensive Skills

Younger players should develop their ball handling, passing, and driving skills at an early age as well. Playing against zones encourages younger players to shoot too far out from the perimeter, which creates improper shooting form. Playing against man to man will encourage players to dribble under pressure with their heads up, drive to the basket, "dish off" to open players, utilize screens on and off the ball, fight for inside position, and develop their peripheral vision to see the entire court. They also have to develop court awareness.

There are many programs where all types of zones are used. Coaches practice the strategy of playing the zone and the strategy of beating the zone more than practicing fundamentals. As mentioned earlier, most shots come from the outside--too far outside against a zone, so many players get their elbow out to the side and "wing it up there." In return, bad habits are formed.

When only man to man defenses are allowed, coaches have to focus on the fundamentals mentioned above. They have to work on the pick and roll and how to defend it, how to dribble drive to the basket, and how to pass under pressure. Practices are much more developmental for younger players when man to man defenses are utilized.

When Are Zones Appropriate?

Zones definitely are appropriate at higher levels such as high school and college, based on the abilities and skills of the players, the coaches' comfort level in teaching one defense over another, and the strengths and weaknesses of the opponent.

In fact, zones are more effective at the secondary level because the players have developed the defensive skills playing man to man at a younger age. They are now ready to play a more effective zone.

The Bottom Line

In summary, here are the advantages of playing man to man in youth programs:

  • They are developmental and teach both basic offensive and defensive skills
  • They focus on team defense, helping out, and recovering
  • Players need to develop basic offensive skills to play against man to man defense.
  • Coaches conduct practices based more on basics than on strategy
  • They are competitive and foster a competitive attitude
  • They are more fun to play and play against
  • Man to man defense fosters enthusiasm, excitement, and a more active brand of basketball