Warning: I Don’t Like the Zig Zag Drill

I don’t like the Zig Zag Drill because it represents nothing about how the game is played. Far too many people still teach the game of basketball the way it was played in the past. The Zig Zag Drill is an example of that thinking.

Traditional Zig Zag Drill

I learn much of what I teach by watching my players and evaluating if what I am coaching is actually being applied by my player’s in games. As you can imagine this is a difficult assessment. Over the last five years or so I have watched a lot of international basketball. I noticed particularly that players with the ball often passed and played with the ball outside their bodies. They threw one-hand passes off the dribble, they threw passes by stepping outside or across their bodies, and they often left their feet to pass. 

This intrigued me so I decided to watch a number of my team’s games with that in mind. What I noticed was that we threw basically no chest passes in our games. The only ones that happened were in the open court in transition. So I decided to emphasize the same passes I saw players use internationally. We created conditions for our players to work on leaving their feet to pass, one-hand passes, passing outside their bodies and so on. I was impressed with how much better a passing team we became and how much faster we were able to play. I don’t think it was the technique of the new passes we taught as much as it was the freedom of having the chest pass removed as a necessary pass.

I came to a similar conclusion about covering the ball full court defensively. In fact that conclusion came long ago as I coached a player when I first started coaching who mystified me. She covered the ball defensively by breaking every rule I ever learned about full court defense.

Game Footage: Full Court Defense on the Dribbler

Let’s review some of the typical full court defensive stance teaching points:

  • Stay Down Low.
  • Keep on the Balls of your Feet.
  • Step-Slide.
  • Have a Wide Base of Support.
  • Keep your Back Straight.

I can say with great fondness that she broke every one of those rules in defending the ball full court; and she was one of the best one-on-one defenders I have ever coached. Since coaching her over eighteen years I have refused to believe there is one perfect technique that helps a defender cover the ball in the full court. 

Now back to the Zig Zag Drill, it’s not that it doesn’t teach any good defensive concepts. It does. It is just that I believe there is a better way to teach those concepts within the context of how the game is played. 

If you watch a defender cover the dribbler in the full court they rarely slide or move in such a controlled way. They sprint and slide a little, but mainly they sprint and jump turn. They are constantly running and recovering. 

Example of Run Recoveries

We spend no time on defensive slides. We do spend time on run recoveries. Run recoveries start with a crossover step followed by a sprint to get ahead of the dribbler. If the defender can get ahead of the dribbler and there is sufficient gap, they jump turn to get back to a chest-to-chest position with the dribbler.

One of the defensive concepts that does transfer is the defender’s intent to keep the dribbler in front or as we talk about “to stay chest-to-chest with the ball.” Chest-to-chest is the defender’s advantage. This is the application of the principle of keeping the dribbler between the defender and the basket. 

The other defensive concept that does transfer is that during a Zig Zag Drill a defender tries to the turn the dribbler. We don’t want the dribbler to come up the floor in a straight line. 

The real problem with the Zig Zag Drill is its impact on offense. It transfers no useful learning to the dribbler.

I would never want the ball dribbled up the floor in a zig zag pattern. That is a recipe for disaster. It plays right into the goal of the defense of turning the dribbler into traps, and/or slowing the dribbler down as they come up the floor. 

The dribbler should attack the defender in a straight line and use a change of pace to create space. The more times they change direction the more the ball is exposed to the defender. More changes of direction could also lead to more trapping opportunities for the defense. 

Since the Zig Zag Drill puts the dribbler in an unrealistic offensive situation, the defender gets no perspective on how hard it is to keep a ballhandler in front in the full court. A coach should understand that in order for both the offensive and defensive player to develop they must be put in live game situations where pace, change or direction and positioning can all be realistic.

So my suggestion is to skip the Zig Zag Drill and run a full court one-on-one drill;

Use a games approach to coaching and coach the decisions and thought process of both players rather than the technique.

The Goals of the Full Court One-on-One Drill:

Defender: Keep the ball in front, stay chest-to-chest with the ball as much as possible, and turn the dribbler as many times as you can as they come up the floor.

Offense: Attack into open space as fast as you can in a straight line. If you feel pressure, use a stop and go dribble movement to re-attack into the most open space. If a second defender comes to you, invite the double team by using a pull-back dribble to pull both defenders towards you. This creates space and a potential pass or dribble out of the double team.

Create advantages for a matchup on your team using these plays that work”

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