One of the questions any coach in the basketball world will be asked is if a parent should have their child playing AAU and travel league basketball. With that being stated – let’s dive into what AAU basketball is and how it can help or hurt the development of your child.
What is AAU?: According to their website – “The Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) is one of the largest, non-profit, volunteer, sports organizations in the United States. A multi-sport organization, the AAU is dedicated exclusively to the promotion and development of amateur sports and physical fitness programs.”
AAU basketball has now become one of the largest amateur summer basketball programs in the United States with hundreds of teams scattered across every city in America. With all these teams bidding for your money what should you be looking for when it comes to selecting the right team for your child?
Picking the right team: First and foremost a club that has a lot of players does not make the club credible or “elite” “premier” or the countless other adjectives an organization uses to bring more revenue in. Some of the worst investments when it comes to AAU organizations are the largest clubs where your child is just a number and another check in the director’s pocket. Clubs like this will often brag about the number of elite level players they have “got to college.” What they don’t tell you is these players were already elite level players when they joined the club, they were guaranteed to go to college and the club picked them up from a smaller organization and promised to pay for all their gear, travel etc. They also don’t tell you that their “practice” and skill development is little to non-existent. In other words, they are paying for all-star teams to increase their own exposure and to gain more revenue.
Secondly having nice “GEAR” or a club being “sponsored” by a shoe company does not make their players GOOD and does not mean the organization is good. Smoke and mirrors are a huge dynamic to AAU branding with the thought being if we look big time people will pay big time. Stay away from these clubs and organizations.
Thirdly AAU has become a important part of the recruiting process for high school athletes wishing to play at the college level HOWEVER it is much more important for HIGH SCHOOL Division 1 prospects than it is for grade school, junior high and even high school athletes who will be playing at the D2, D3 and NAIA levels. This is because coaches at those levels (non-D1) have much more freedom to recruit throughout the summer and are not restricted to “open” periods (periods when D1 coaches can attend NCAA AAU certified events).
Here are some dynamics you should look for in your AAU team:
- Coaches with legitimate experience. If the coach of your child’s high school AAU team has never coached high school basketball then they shouldn’t be coaching high school AAU. If they have never coached junior high school basketball then they shouldn’t be coaching a junior high school AAU team. Coaching is not a hobby – it’s a vocation, job, career. If you want your child to grow in the sport they need to have a coach who legitimately knows the game they are playing and has the resume to prove it. There are always exceptions (a former college player who just coaches AAU because of their day job etc) but coaches should have a sports specific background if they are going to be an asset to the athletic growth of your child.
- How much does the club practice? If you are paying money for your child to be on a AAU team and all they do is play games you are getting ripped off. A good AAU team should be practicing at least 2 times a week with a major emphasis on drills and skill development. The purpose of AAU basketball at EVERY LEVEL is for players to get better. Playing a ton of games does not make a player better – what it does do is allow them to continue to make the same mistakes or rely on the same skills they are comfortable with without ever going out of their comfort zone.
- How serious is the club about what they do? Good AAU organizations are run like any successful endeavor. They expect players to be at practice (unless their high school team has a conflicting event) and they expect their players to be dedicated to the team, to the process of becoming a better player and teammate. If the team your child is playing on struggles to field practices for lack of players, lack of coaches, lack of dedication than they lack the ability to take your child to the next level.
- How honest is the club about your child’s ceiling and how willing are you to hear the truth? Many parents think their child is a division 1 (full scholarship) prospect player. The reality is that probably is not the case. According to a study by the NCAA (found here) out of the 546,428 male participants in high school basketball this year only 3.4% are going on to play at the NCAA D1, D2, D3 levels with only 1% of that number playing at the D1 level. With this being stated, most D1 prospects start receiving interest from division 1 schools by their freshman year in high school with scholarship offers coming by at least their junior year. There are certainly exceptions to this (late bloomers) but if your child is entering their junior and senior years in high school and does not have scholarship offers the reality is they probably are not a D1 caliber athlete. AAU clubs at the high school level should be working hard to help your child get to the college level (whether that be D1, D2, D3, NAIA, USCAA or JUCO) but this includes honest talent evaluation and feedback from the club’s coaches and the college coaches they are in contact with as to what level they fit.
- What type of tournaments do they play in? If your child is playing at the youth level there is no good reason to be traveling all over the country to play AAU tournaments – there is plenty of competition within a 2-hour radiance and the reality is your child needs to be perfecting skill work and learning the game. If your child is a high school player with college ambitions than there is more need to travel. However, this goes back to what was stated earlier – it is based on their college talent level. There are plenty of great tournaments within most areas that several D2, D3, NAIA, USCAA and JUCO coaches will attend. If your child is not a D1 caliber player the need for them to attend events in which D1 coaches will be present is less important – it won’t hurt them but it also isn’t necessary. A club should be forming high school teams based on their college level and playing in tournaments which will expose their players to college coaches at their level.
What parents can and should be doing to help their child improve their skills:
- Playing AAU is not enough to help your child improve in their sport. The importance of camps, clinics and additional training under the direction of a skilled coach /trainer cannot be understated. Players with a desire to play at the elite level can greatly benefit from 1-1 or small group instruction in which a skilled coach / trainer could fix flaws in a player’s game as well as helping them form new skills.
- Players who get to the college level must have a passion for the game. This means they don’t have to be asked, told to practice. If your child isn’t out on the playgrounds, going to recreation centers, fitness clubs (on their own) to practice their craft than they do not have what it takes to play at the college level. Don’t baby your child. They either have the passion for it or they don’t…if they don’t accept that…it’s their life.
- Allow your child to be a kid. Being good at a sport or many sports is great but it is just as important for your child to enjoy time with friends, summer activities etc. If your child loves the game they will make time to work on getting better because they ENJOY getting better. There is nothing worse as a coach than seeing a player with great talent who doesn’t like playing the game because they are burnt out.
- AAU is a great way for a young athlete to improve their basketball skills as well as their social skills if a family picks a solid, trustworthy AAU organization which values player development and honest evaluation over their bottom line.
- Find organizations that have great coaches / great teachers of the game and who value practice time and being accountable to the team.
- The teams with the biggest numbers does not make them the best fit for your child.
- Accept what good high school, AAU and college coaches must say about your child…not every kid is going D1, not every kid will receive a scholarship and that’s okay.
- AAU is not enough – elite players need to be doing camps, clinics and working on their skills with a trainer /coach and most importantly on their own.
- Let kids be kids. Encourage them to pursue their dreams but make sure it is THEIR dreams….not yours.
Andrew Kurzawski, BA, M.Div, NETA CPT is the founder of Gym Rat Performance Training where he functions as a strength & conditioning coach and basketball skills trainer. He is a collegiate basketball / strength and conditioning coach at Penn State University Beaver. He holds a NETA (National Exercise Training Association) Personal Training certification and has over 10 years of experience working with elite level athletes at the high school, college (NAIA, USCAA, NCAA D1, D2, D3) and professional levels.