Coaching Youth Basketball: Why Teach Man Defense?

Teaching man-to-man principles and techniques, starting with a basic stance, then movement, then playing on-the-ball and off-the-ball, before even considering teaching zone defense just makes sense. You have to start with the basics. Man defense is the basic.

There are a lot of reasons to teach zone defense. What I want to show readers here is how, by using man-to-man techniques while deploying zone defense, you can make your defense so much stronger and effective.

When starting out teaching defense, particularly at youth age levels, the basics necessarily require teaching man skills and techniques. This will include, and incorporate later into dynamic capabilities for individual defensive play, stance, sliding and movement, followed by 1-on-1 on-the-ball and off-the-ball techniques and rules.

Logic and good teaching procedure would use plateaus of learning, moving from individual lessons to 1-on-1, then 2-on-2, and so on, until reaching full team execution of man-to-man defense. It does no good to teach the team game before a child has been introduced to and hopefully mastered well enough the individual aspects of defense. When every player can play both on-the-ball and off-the-ball, the rules used in teaching these techniques will easily lead right into teaching team defense. It’s basically already been done at this point, because with five players following their individual on- and off-ball rules, they’ve got the basic structure for the team defense. Now it’s just a matter of teaching how to play and be effective as a group.

It’s very difficult to teach (read virtually impossible) zone defense in this same manner. Zone defense doesn’t lend itself to individual teaching and plateau building before arriving at the team game. We coaches pretty much across the board install a 5-man set to begin teaching zone defense and we pretty much all teach a similar structure—regardless of the zone set (1-2-2, 1-3-1, 2-1-2, etc.). We teach five men facing the ball in the set we’re using, and having backs turned on offensive players who may be behind the defense and away from the ball. Of course, let’s not forget the age-old declamations for players to get their “arms up”, and to slide laterally, in unison.

More advanced zone defensive teaching will incorporate many techniques and stunts to raise effectiveness and efficacy of the zone, but right now I’m appealing to the coach who uses zone defense because:

  • They don’t know how to effectively teach man defense;
  • They really like zone defense and don’t want to play man;
  • The team is big, therefore zone really serves to pack the middle, or other reasons of strategy;
  • They think teaching zone defense is the easiest way to teach defense.

No matter what the team individual attributes—big, small, slow, quick—starting the teaching of defense with individual man techniques will improve a player’s understanding of defense and his/her performance on defense. At all levels of instruction, we must teach the individual before we teach the team, and this just can’t happen by starting right off with teaching zone defense.

In man defense, we should be teaching how to slide effectively to block an offensive player’s path. This is not a lateral slide with the feet even. This slide always will have the foot closest to the offensive player forward -- pushing—while the foot in the direction of the offensive movement will be back and reaching. When our offensive player has the ball, we have learned how to play on the ball. Good man-defense teaching will include teaching the defender to play between the ball and the basket and how to maintain this position. We should also have taught how to play in help defense when playing off-the-ball, playing off our own man while at the same time being in a position to help the player who is playing on the ball. This one-and-a-half man philosophy is the backbone and strength of a zone. It’s a primary reason for teaching zone defense—to be able to close down any direct route to the basket. The other things mentioned earlier in this paragraph, when utilized in teaching zone, will make use of a zone more effective.

If you are willing to concede a new paradigm for teaching zone defense, where five players facing the ball, attempting to move synchronously with arms extended overhead, gives way to a more man-defense look but employs the power of a zone, you are ready for my challenge.

The big challenge is in altering what is commonly taught in zone defense to using what I teach when teaching zone. I teach “triangle defense” in man-to-man. If this is taught in zone, you will see how any zone set can be automatically and easily upgraded to a virtual “denial defense”.

“Triangle Defense” goes back to the precepts taught early on in man defense. These are the setting up of triangles between the ball, the offensive player being guarded (no matter where on the floor) and the basket. The #1 rule for defending the player with the ball is to maintain a position describing “ball-me-basket”. Any player off-the-ball, and depending on their offensive player’s proximity to the ball, will describe triangles of “ball-me-man” and “man-me-basket”.

The latter rules, incorporating two triangles, are the crux of what I teach in both defensive forms. When a defender is following the triangle rules, (s)he is in help mode and at the same time having vision on their man. This is accomplished by constantly moving the feet adjusting to the offensive payer’s movement, not having to turn the head to hold vision on the man. Using this in team zone defense will allow a defender to never have their back turned on a player in their zone. At the same time the closest defender to the ball is ready to come together with the on-ball defender to stop penetration. As in man defense, the players nearest the ball should be in over-play on their men so as to deny an easy pass inside. Either playing directly in front of the offensive player or else being right up to the potential receiver of a pass, with an arm and leg extended across the passing lane. (In man defense, if the ball was at the wing and there was an offensive player at the low-post, the low post defender would be playing denial with their body tight to the offensive player’s and the ball side arm and leg across the front of the offensive player’s body. Same thing in zone.)

Here’s something a little radical. If there is a defender with no one in his/her zone, then obviously another zone is over-loaded. The player without someone in their zone acts like a “free safety” in football—searching for the mismatch elsewhere and ready to blitz toward the weaker area, or anywhere else, when needed.

I hope you can see that with the defenders constantly changing the placement of their feet, the look of the defense is also changing. There is no instance of five defenders facing the ball with offensive players being free behind the defense. We can still admonish players to hold their arms up to discourage over the top passes, but why, when we don’t do it in man defense? If defenders have been taught well in man principles, the most important arm is the one in the passing lane between the ball and the defender’s man. The inside chest or bounce pass is more a threat than the skip pass over the top of the defense to the other side of the floor. When a defender for the backside of the defense is in their triangle, they can see both the position of any player behind them and the player with the ball thus cutting down on any surprise skip pass. The game revolves around the ball, so I teach watching the ball. When vision is held constant on the ball by all five defenders, they can react quickly to whatever is done with the ball, whether it’s a pass, dribble or shot.

Communication between the back-side defenders and front-side defenders about movement of offensive players coming toward the ball is a crucial teaching area. How far to accompany an offensive player moving toward the ball is a coaching decision, but if we treat off-ball movement such as flashes, meeting the player and cutting off their flash, the defense will be very tight.

Try this. Incorporate man principles into your zone defense the same as you incorporate zone (off-the-ball) principles in well taught man defense. Teach these principles in both defensive forms and you will have added immeasurable strength to both.

There are several articles and products I have created to help learn the basic teaching of defense. These have been highlighted within this article and can be found at my website, www.Top-Basketball-Coaching.com .

Teaching Individual Defense, Part I

http://www.top-basketball-coaching.com/September_2006.html

Teaching Individual Defense, Part II

http://www.top-basketball-coaching.com/October_2006.html

Defending The Dribble Entry

http://www.top-basketball-coaching.com/November1_2006.html

Video: Teaching Individual Defense

https://freeiq.com/teachingindividualdefense

Ebook: Teaching Individual Defense

https://freeiq.com/ebookteachingindividualdefense