AAU, High School Basketball, and the Question of the Off-Season

The debate about AAU/club basketball and high-school basketball is nothing new. Every year, it seems, supporters of each faction argue about the pros and cons of each, as if each is a single entity. As I have written previously, the problem is not one or the other, but both. 

Today, I watched a 90-minute AAU practice. The team warmed-up with five-man weaves and then worked on 5v0 sets for the rest of the time before ending with 10 free-throw attempts for each player.

Of course, earlier this summer, I watched a high-school practice that consisted of 45 minutes of three-man weaves, 20 minutes of stationary ball handling, and roughly 25 minutes of teaching an offensive set combined with shooting jump shots.

Many might suggest that the high-school practice was better because there were drills involved. If you watched the two, you might suggest that the AAU practice was better because of the pace of the practice. Neither was worth the time or effort.

The problem, of course, is deciding on the purpose for the months from March to October. Is the purpose exposure? Is the purpose to win summer tournaments? Is the purpose to improve? Both of these practices appeared to be geared toward winning games in the present.

Every season, there are complaints that players lack specific skills or make poor decisions. The lack of skills and poor decision-making are a direct result of practices like these.

Some argue that players should work out on their own. When? At the high-school practice, several players left directly from the high-school practice to drive to an AAU practice. The high school worked out or played games five days per week. The AAU team practiced two to three times per week and played in weekend tournaments. The players are averaging three hours per day on the court, not to mention dead time between games and driving to and from practices and games. How much more time should a high-school student devote to basketball?

In three hours of practices like these (and I know that I only saw two practices so the chances are that some of the practices actually have some skill development), the players did not get faster, stronger, or improve their skills. Do they need to spend another hour per day with a shooting coach, and a second hour with a strength & conditioning coach?

The problem is not AAU. The problem is not high-school basketball. The problem occurs when players play in the off-season in a competition-centric environment. In a competition-centered environment, there is little room or time for skill or athletic development.

Last night, in the interview with Ryan Lochte after he finished third in the 100m butterfly, Lochte said that he had practiced that morning. He said that competing in the 100m butterfly, which nobody expected him to finish in the top two, was training. Here he is at the second biggest meet of the year, and arguably the second biggest meet of a four-year cycle, and he is in development mode. He is working toward a peak. In the July/August 2012 Men’s Health interview with Lochte, Jim Thorton wrote: “At a meet in late March, Phelps beat him by three seconds in the 200 IM. Lochte didn’t like losing, but he wasn’t particularly disheartened. ‘During heavy training, I’m not great because I’m so beat up,’ he says.” After Lochte beat Phelps on the first night of the U.S. Swimming trials, Phelps said it was no big deal, and that Lochte knew that the race that mattered was in London.

Even as they were competing to make the Olympic team, they were far from their peak. They were training all the way through the competition with their eyes on London. They raced in meets in the spring, but they were not concerned with performance – it was part of their training, like a basketball player playing a game in the off-season to test his progress and practice competing. They did not sacrifice their training and preparation just to win a meaningless race in March. Lochte was lifting heavy the day before his race rather than resting and tapering for performance.

When a player’s AAU team and high-school team focus on competition and winning in the off-season, as these practices suggested, the coaches are sacrificing the player’s development to win meaningless games. An AAU coach may argue that it’s important for a team to play well with college coaches watching. However, this ignores the tournaments in April, May, and June when no coaches can be present (with the exception of one weekend). For a high-school coach, does anyone remember the summer-league champion?

When I was young, I played in summer leagues where we signed up, and the league put us on a team. I did not know my teammates, and our coaches hardly did anything more than substitute. I played in a Nike-sponsored spring league where the league never bothered to assign a coach to our team, so we ran the team ourselves. We finished third, despite being one of the only teams in the top 10 without a single future Division I basketball recruit. Naturally, we competed when we were in the game, but the league did not impact our training. Today, parents would be complaining. My parents never missed an in-season game in any sport that I played, but they never attended an out-of-season game. It was clear that those games were to keep us busy and help us improve, but they were not important – the season counted, and everything else only mattered if it enhanced performance during the season (or if we were having fun and staying out of trouble).

In my basketball career, I was coached far less than the average high-school player today, but I managed to develop into a great shooter with great court vision. Today, parents schedule training sessions, and high-school players lack the coordination to be a great shooter. Years of practices and games, and little coordination and poor movement.

When we played, my friends and I did things naturally that players today fail to do with all of their coaching and private training. We learned by playing the game. We improved our individual skills on our own because we had plenty of time. We were not in the gym with different teams for three hours per day working on nonsense: We spent three hours at the park or an open gym playing pick-up games and worked on our shooting on a side basket if we lost.

As a coach, you have to decide on the purpose for your off-season program. As a parent, you have to decide what your son or daughter needs in the off-season. As a player, you need to find an environment that provides the best opportunity to exploit your needs, whether development, exposure, or competition.

When I get incoming college freshmen who played AAU and high-school basketball (not for either of the above programs), and they cannot squat properly, dead lift properly, land from a jump, etc., and then I watch practices filled with time-wasting conditioning drills and a heavy emphasis on plays, I grow frustrated.

Ultimately, the player and parent have to make the decision. Do you need to win, get exposure, or improve? If your off-season goal is improving, how are three-man weaves or set plays improving your skills? What are your weaknesses? What is the limiting factor in you achieving your goals? What are your strengths that you need to build to take your game to the next level? Are your team practices meeting these needs?

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