Once upon a time I played basketball. I also played a lot of schoolyard American Football. Both of these sports have different possible defensive approaches. One of these is zone defense.

As a basketball player I had strengths and weaknesses. I was good around the basket, played hard, could throw an elbow, and rebounded the hell out of the ball. I was also a poor outside shooter and didn’t have enough quickness to get my own shot outside of about four feet. But the thing I was best at was zone defense. I was very good at zone defense.

As a football player I was a decent quarterback and a good what be called the “possession receiver” role. If I had played competitively I would have been able to catch the ball reliably and pick up a few yards after the catch. But the thing I was best at was zone defense. I was very good at zone defense.

As I understand them, the fundamental skills associated with zone defense are, the ability to read the entire field or court, the ability to pre-perceive the likely movement of the ball, the flexibility to break out of any assigned appointment and react to information as it changes on a micro-second basis, and the ability to take a risk to potentially get an interception. In football, a single interception can swing a whole game. In basketball an interception and dunk or lay in on the other end can be a catalyst for swinging the momentum to your team and change the trajectory of a game or quarter. When I was young I liked the cornerback Everson Walls. This was because he led the league in interceptions. I liked interceptions. I still do.

One time my friend from New Zealand asked to join his touch rugby club team for a game. So I did. He explained the rules and I told him I would get an interception and run it back for a “try.” Kiwis call touchdowns “tries” for some reason. He told me there was no way, interception tries were too hard and it was my first ever game. I scored two tries on interceptions. This was not because I was a good touch rugby player. This was because the above zone defense principles applied perfectly to rugby as well. I didn’t even know the rules really, but I could play zone defense. It was automatic.

Zone defense is one of two main types of defense. The other is man-to-man defense. I do not like man-to-man defense. I’m kind of bad at it. Man-to-man defense requires you to stick to an exact task, for example staying in front of your opponent, to the exclusion of all other considerations. Man-to-man defense is boring. It lacks creativity, it lacks pizzazz, it lacks excitement. Man-to-man defenders are great at what they do, however they are specialists. Zone defenders are generalists. I’m a generalist.

One more thing that zone defenders rely on is their teammates. A zone defender is responsible for a certain area rather than a certain person, however that area can be pretty vaguely defined in practice. So other zone defenders need to be attuned to the shifting boundaries of the “areas” of the field or court. There is no such thing as a fixed area. Areas, it turns out, are relative.

I believe that the principles of zone defense are widely applicable to life, work, and other pursuits. I identify as a zone defender.

Dedication: For Marcelo, my kindred spirit in zone defense.

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