Should my child sign up for AAU basketball? For many people on the outside of the bubble that is “AAU culture”, they are often looking no further than the circus act of Lavar Ball and shutting the door.
I had some preconceived notions going into my first season coaching at the AAU level this past spring, and most of them were negative. The top misconception on my list was that everyone in the AAU equation – players, parents, and coaches were in it primarily for themselves. And while there were definitely elements of the Big Baller brand in play, I came to find out that my assumption applied only to a very small minority. The catch word of everyone in the program that I coached with was “family.” It was what was said before breaking the huddle and how all practices were concluded. As a result of that slogan and the way that leadership of the program embraced this mantra from the top down, players put the team first.
Here are the three pros and cons that I have found in my experience with AAU basketball.
The Pros of AAU Basketball
AAU Drills and Skills
Part of the structure for the program that I coached at included one night per week of skill development for one hour. In my opinion this was more valuable than the three or four hours that players would have for games on the weekend.
Players were grouped in stations by the teams that they played for, so about ten players per group. There were usually four stations – although some weeks there could be three or five depending upon what the agenda was. One station might be geared toward rebounding, another toward teaching the options involved in a flair screen, a third station could be doing two ball dribble and other dribbling drills, while a fourth station might focus on some type of shooting (Euro step, pull ups, set shots, shot fakes, etc.). Many of these things were being shown to players for the first time. As Geoff Colvin points out in his book Talent Is Overrated that deals with the famed 10,000 hour rule, “beginners can’t manage more than an hour of practice per day, and sometimes much less.” Given that players would visit each station for no more than fifteen minutes, the structure of this format proved to be the perfect antidote for the athlete trying to pick up the new skill.
More important than the skill though was the environment at the station. At each station there was at least one knowledgeable coach giving timely feedback on how players could improve these skills. If a player did not properly rip through for instance, they were told about their mistake immediately and asked to do it again. Upon seeing their peers of similar ability do it, other players were ably to visualize what was expected of them and picked up the skill faster than they ever would on their own. As a coach, by the time I had my third group of the night I knew exactly the type of mistakes to look for in a player’s backdoor cut or where fatigue would push players in the dribbling drills and how to push these players to dig deeper mentally or physically.
The types of people that are playing AAU basketball are people that love to play basketball. They generally play more, study the game more, and are more physically gifted than the typical players. Naturally, competing with and against these types of people in drills and skills, games, and at practices will lead to more focused and higher intensity practices than players typically get in other environments. And when your opponents and teammates are better, it will bring the best out of every player.
All of this implies of course that your child gets placed on the correct team and in correct tournaments. The AAU program that I worked with had a tryout process and was able to place players on appropriate teams as far as I could tell. The problem came occasionally in tournaments when teams could face players of varying ages and skill levels that resulted in lop-sided results. When these games happen it is natural for players to develop bad habits (blow out wins) or cause mental anguish (blow out loss) if their coach lashes out at them. That said, these same flaws also exist in community leagues where unfortunately politics sometimes drive decisions and in travel leagues where some teams have a leg up because players have been playing longer.
Kids Love to Play in Games
Monica Seles loved to practice and drill. She is in the minority. In my experience with AAU players were playing games on the weekend for twice the amount of time that they practiced during the week. As a coach I hate this idea and consider it a weakness of the AAU model, but kids love to play in games above all else.
The Cons of AAU Basketball
Travel to Games
A couple of coaches that I compete with in the high school think families are completely insane because the travel can actually take more time than the games themselves. In the six tournaments that I coached this season, I’d say that was the case half the time. We might have two games on Saturday at 9:00 and 11:00 if we were lucky and the round trip would end up being six hours. That’s not to mention that we would often be back doing the same thing again on Sunday. In other words, the primary weekend activity for players, families, and coaches on the weekends is AAU basketball.
When I was younger, I played basketball all year by riding my bike to the playground. I had a basketball in my hand, but I also could expect to make my soccer game or baseball game without any hiccups. I had several players who were involved in multiple sports on my team this past spring. I did not penalize any of them for missing AAU practices or games because the way I saw it the AAU was their version of keeping a ball in their hands. My perspective may not be shared by other coaches, so playing AAU might mean leaving other sports behind. That leaves players at higher risk for injury, and call me old school, but I like the idea of kids playing multiple sports or having an alternate hobby in the arts.
Lack of Practice Time
The practices were usually one hour in length – although there were a few that could be longer during the week. This is where a team could put in their individual wrinkles depending upon what a coach might want to emphasize. This was not enough time in proportion to the amount of time that teams play in games. We would play one game and could not solve a full-court press. Two hours later, we would get full court pressed again. Guess if the result changed. I did not have the time to implement a press breaker, go over out of bounds plays, design a half-court offense for man and zone, and teach multiple defenses in one practice. Coaches have to prioritize what they believe players can’t live without. With travel teams and community teams this is not as much of an issue because the practice time is equal to or greater than the hours spent of game time.
In addition to all of these factors, players were coming from further distances to reach wherever we were practicing. During the week, this can be a challenge for families. By missing even one or two players we were often unable to play five on five at practice and in games these players had to learn everything we did in our precious hour on a whiteboard. Players were sometimes unprepared to be better than they were the week before.
Many people do AAU as a means to prepare for a high school or college season. And despite my misgivings with the structure of practice and games, AAU basketball is way better than going out in the driveway and taking one hundred shots. That being said, the preparation that goes into games is different. It is uncommon to know what the opponents strengths, weaknesses, and tendencies are in AAU games. At high school or the college level, you spend two practices and a walk-through preparing for all of these things.
Conclusion on Whether to Play AAU Basketball
I have had players and their parents ask how they can continue to play basketball after the season or what I think about AAU basketball. Looking back on the way I got into coaching AAU, I kind of just jumped into the pool. To confront any initial uncertainty, if I were a parent, coach, or player that was considering AAU basketball, the very first thing I would ask the program coach or director before signing up is what is it that you value? Once your foot is in the water and you determine that the values are a match with your own expectations and values, you could then decide to swim or not. Overall, if I were afforded this opportunity as a kid, I would have pushed my parents to sign me up for AAU basketball, but I’m also a basketball junkie to this day. Keep in mind, my experience is with one program which could be totally different from other programs, so use this as one of several resources for determining if AAU basketball is the right choice for you. For more info on this topic Breakthrough Basketball had a really good post that I would also recommend reading.