Spring is synonymous with a lot of things but for those of us who love basketball and enjoy coaching, it also represents the start of the AAU basketball circuit - and all that comes with it. For the players, it is typically a time to get outside your town or school-based teams and, hopefully, play in a more competitive and performance-stretching environment and for coaches, it is a chance to play many games in a short period of time. Like anything in life, there is ample opportunity to grow and develop as long as you are willing to stay disciplined and create them.
Before I share my thoughts, I do want to post a recent rant by former NBA star - and current ESPN analyst Kendrick Perkins - about the current AAU environment. While I don't necessarily agree with everything he says, I also can't say I disagree with all of it either...
As soon as the "high school season" concluded, I worked with my son and his friends to create a short season to accommodate their interest in playing spring sports, so within days of hanging up the jerseys at Hanover HS, we were back in the gym getting ready to play a four-weekend AAU schedule. We ventured down to Hampton, NH to play on back to back weekends and it was clear from the outset that it was a different style of play with different goals for the coaches, or at least those we played against it. The lackadaisical officiating and the turnstile nature of these AAU games create a more physical environment and one that rewards teams willing to play aggressively. In general, there is nothing wrong with aggressive play but the more I do this, as years pass, the more it seems this is becoming the norm. Teams are no longer in these environments to develop skill; they are there to win within the system and for some coaches, show their worth. This is where the world of player development collides with the for-profit AAU system and really does rob kids of the opportunity to improve. The reality is... if kids played HS basketball with the same level of physicality that they play in AAU or, rather, are allowed to play in AAU, they'd foul out by halftime. Not all teams, but more and more each year.
On the flip side, I am SO APPRECIATIVE of the environment in which my daughter plays AAU Basketball with the New England Crusaders. Their leader, Kara Leary, has been at this a long time (sorry, Kara, if that makes you feel old!) but the focus is right where it should be - on the skill development of the players within a proven system. It can be really hard, in the context of AAU basketball, to stay committed to the development of your players over a win-at-all-costs team approach but when you find one of those programs for your son or daughter, join it and embrace the process.
Wherever your child is in his/her development, AAU can be a difference maker but just selecting the right program to meet their needs is important. Here are some important things to consider:
Coaching - are the coaches legitimate teachers with skill development background or just "game managers" who want to go out and play to win?
Philosophy - it's OK to ask questions! Ask about the overall coaching philosophy. Find out how often the team will practice and what kids will be working on. Inquire about playing time. Unless you've found a program that I haven't, you will be making an investment and every coach should be willing to articulate their core values so you can assess whether or not it is the right fit.
Travel - does your son/daughter need to be tearing up and down the east coast every weekend to get what they need or is a more local or regional option a better fit? Depending on age, this is a big deal. If your child wants to play in college, for instance, then make sure you find a program that affords them the opportunity to be seen.
Track record - Does this program have a history (good, bad or otherwise?) Find out, ask around (high school coaches, message boards) and make sure you are putting your child in the best possible environment.
Don't be afraid to cut your losses - Nothing everything is as it seems. Coaches changes, players come and go and even leadership can shift. If you feel things changing in a program, speak up, respectfully, and find out why. At the end of the day, it's all about your child and regardless of how competitive they are, if they aren't having fun, they won't maximize the opportunity.
My best to everyone as they embark on the AAU season. Stay safe and play hard!