Should I Play AAU?

Before you begin, understand I am not against using AAU at the appropriate time for your child. I am against kids/parents being used by AAU. Earning a scholarship has always been and will always be about skills. GBA has had athletes in both small private and Single A schools earn D1 scholarships. Doesn’t matter where an athlete goes to school. If they have the skills the colleges will find them.

No Skills = No Confidence = No Aggressiveness = No Playing Time = A Lot of Frustration for Kids and Parents

As a skills instructor, I get asked this question on a regular basis. There is no “one answer fits all” reply. Parents and athletes must realize and understand the focus of AAU at the older age levels (i.e. 15+). AAU has both positives and negatives and parents must carefully consider both in their decision. While there are several thought processes every parent and athlete should consider and honestly evaluate prior to making their decision, the most important to remember is the OFF-SEASON is the time for the INDIVIDUAL to develop and improve their skills while the IN-SEASON is the time for TEAM improvement.

I always ask, why are you considering AAU? The answer I get most often is for more playing time to improve skills. Both parent and player believe that more playing time will magically make them a more skilled player and their high school coach will play them more. More playing time alone is not the answer. How is a player going to improve skills just by playing more? They won’t. Players stay in their comfort zone. How can they try new skills (i.e. moves, shots, etc.) if they haven’t developed them through hours of training and practice? Not gonna happen. Each athlete is different but it can take several months to become strong enough in a new skill to use in a game. Playing while training rarely works and game time alone will not improve your skill set.

Here are a few more thoughts that might help:

AAU is all about the TEAM (as is the regular high school season). Because athletes typically come from different schools the coach must spend the majority of practice time preparing the TEAM. Athletes must get use to playing together and gel as a team. The coach must spend the very limited practice time teaching plays and preparing the team for weekend tournaments. There is NO TIME for individual skill improvement.

The top level teams have tryouts and have no lack of top talent. The mid-level teams will also have tryouts and accept the athletes that didn’t make the top teams. The lower-level teams may have tryouts but usually are begging for players in order to have a team. Here is the hard question a parent and athlete must honestly ask; “Are my skills strong enough to play at the top level?”

What is your ultimate goal? If an athlete’s goal and desire is to play college ball yet their skill level isn’t strong enough to make a top team, then why waste the time and money playing on a lower-level team that college coaches are not going to come watch anyway? Why not put that time and money into individual skills instruction and training? Become better prepared for the next high school season and the following AAU season. An athlete can do both (play on a lower-level team and train) but it can be very demanding, time consuming, and costly. Playing on a local team while also training can be helpful in keeping cost down yet still get some extra playing time.

Are you currently starting on your JV or Varsity team? If not starting, are you getting much playing time? Are you starting but not contributing much to the team? If you couldn’t answer in a positive way there is a reason – your skills need to be improved. If you’re not starting or getting a lot of playing time on your varsity team as a sophomore then the chances of playing college ball are slim unless you drastically improve your skills. Stronger skills is the answer. Being able to run up and down the court on a lower level AAU team is not the answer.

AAU can actually be detrimental to your overall progress and goals. Many athletes not only need to improve their skills but they also need to get rid of bad habits. One major problem playing AAU without training is it allows the athlete to continue strengthening bad habits. Unless skills are improved and new, good habits replace the bad ones, young athletes will always revert back to what they are comfortable doing – the bad habits. I’ve seen too many athletes skip individual training because they think its “cool” to say they play AAU and never reach their full potential. The parents and players get frustrated and discouraged and wonder why the high school coach doesn’t play them more.

I’ve heard and read comments such as

“AAU is important because it allows you to play against the best. If you want to be the best you have to play the best.” 

The comment might sound good but is totally illogical. First, if you go against the best and your skills are not at their best you will get exposed. You will be compared to the “best” and come up lacking. Also, if you are on a lower level team because of your lack of skills and have to play against the “best” you will get creamed and knocked out of tourneys before college coaches are watching anyway. Remember, AAU tourneys weed out the weaker teams early and only the “best” play for the championships before college coaches. How many low-level, average, mediocre teams have you seen play in a championship game of a good tourney. Don’t be fooled or kid yourself. You become one of the best by dedicating hours and hours to individual skill improvement through thousands of correct repetitions. Not by “playing the best.”

“My child plays AAU to become more aggressive.” 

It is true a player better be aggressive in AAU games because they are one step short of a rugby game. Skills with aggressiveness makes a much better player though. Again, no or limited skills equals very little playing time. Many unskilled players end up with injuries due to not having body balance and body control skills. It’s not just about shooting and handles.

“My child plays AAU to learn more court awareness.” 

First, no skills = no playing time. Secondly, in order for a player to be able to keep their head and eyes up and be able to think quickly and react even quicker while on the move and under pressure, their skills must be at a high level. A player will only focus on protecting the ball. They will not be able to do both effectively if they have not developed their skills to a high level.

AAU plays an important role in the exposure of student athletes to college coaches. AAU, at the older age level, doesn’t add as much to the development of basketball skills. AAU can keep top athletes sharp and possibly allow them to play more free and open than a high school coach may allow. But, that is the point – they are already top athletes and have fewer flaws in their game. AAU does provide athletes with additional “game play” but the top athletes are already getting plenty of playing time on their high school team. Again, if you’re not playing much in high school, the chances of playing on a good AAU team will be slim as well.

An athlete doesn’t have to play AAU in order to get noticed and earn a scholarship. Plenty of athletes work hard year-round, just play high school ball, have a coach and/or someone else help with exposure, and go on to play in college. Unless an athlete’s skill level is very strong I recommend staying out of AAU and training hard until the summer after their junior year. An athlete doesn’t need several years of playing AAU (if any) in order to get a scholarship. If the skill level is strong enough they can make a top team and get the exposure they need in one summer. Then they still have the high school season to improve stats and get more exposure. Just remember, its not high school or AAU alone that determines your basketball future. Its how much individual work you dedicate yourself to in order to get your skills to the level needed.

To summarize and close, be brutally honest in evaluating your skill level. Then decide on your goals. Is your goal college or just being your best for high school? Whatever the goal, the only way to truly improve skills is through long-term, specific, individual training. One last thing to remember, you may be hoping for more “Exposure” through AAU but without a strong skill set you’ll just get “Exposed” as an unskilled player. Good luck and hope to see you on the court!