A number of years ago Seattle Sockeye was playing an exhibition game versus a touring national team. Roger Crafts, former Sockeye player and co-founder/co-director with me of Seattle Youth Ultimate Camps, and I were asked to set up a halftime showcase game showing off a couple of our great middle school teams in Seattle. We set the game up. The twenty minute game started and before you know it one of the teams started playing zone. It absolutely killed the atmosphere of exciting and fun-to-watch ultimate.
Fast forward a couple of years. I was writing guidelines for a new single gender middle school league in Seattle. Some of the league teams were from schools participating in our middle school league in other sports as well. As I wrote the guidelines, I tried to stick to that league’s guiding philosophy: making sports fun and rewarding for middle school athletes.
The first thing I did after talking to a number of experienced middle school and high school coaches was to outlaw zone defenses (cup-based defenses only, poaching, switching, etc. were fine).
We had a number of reasons for taking this approach. We wanted to promote the fun of the sport to athletes and parents, emphasizing the offensive rather than defensive side of the game. Not only did it do that, it also allowed coaches to focus more, given limited time with their players, on the fundamentals of playing man-to-man offense and defense.
Anyone who has watched middle school games knows that players generally don’t make calls, but when they do, the ones that are often the most contentious are disagreements and misunderstandings about double teams in cup-based zone defenses. By eliminating zones we quickly and effectively eliminated that problem.
One of the big issues for youth ultimate is finding competent coaches. A big advantage of the elimination of zone was that it removed one of the most complicated parts of the game and opened coaching ultimate to a larger pool of candidates. It also helped keep the game in the hands of the kids on the field rather than the coach on the sidelines.
Whenever we bring up the discussion about eliminating zone we get a lot of support for the reasons mentioned above. However, we also get three main arguments against.
The first argument is that players need to learn zone for when they get to high school. The high school coaches we talk with (me included) have been generally dismissive about this argument. The bigger concern for high school coaches is having players coming up who have the basic fundamentals needed to play man-to-man offense and defense. The high school coaches generally agreed that they could teach zone fundamentals pretty quickly and that they had to teach it anyway because middle school zones were so different from high school zones.
The second argument is that for better or worse zone is part of the game and therefore should be allowed. While it is part of the game, it doesn’t have to be so before high school. It can be more of a progression. Let the younger players focus on the fundamentals of the game. This is common practice in sports such as basketball as well.
The third argument is that playing zone helps win games. This is a Pyrrhic victory. We all understand wanting to win and there is nothing fundamentally wrong with that, but winning is achievable within the framework of not playing zone and in the long run is better for the development of the players and the sport.
Are there any good structural arguments for playing zone in middle school? Yes, there is one. If you are playing more than two games in a day and you don’t have enough players, zone is a good way to keep your players from running their legs out on defense. The not-so-simple answer is to either have enough players to not have to play zone or don’t play that many games in a day.
Our experiment with not allowing zone in middle school has been a rousing success in our middle school league.* We were very pleased this year when DiscNW successfully started a single gender middle school league and the coaches agreed with our policy and adopted it for that league as well. We are hopeful that all ultimate leagues for middle school, elementary school, and younger athletes will also adopt the policy.
*In a future article I will write more about those middle school guidelines.
Feature photo by Coit Stevenson