AAU is the Scapegoat: Skill Development in the USA

“I don’t train for sprints. I train for marathons.” – Dilated Peoples

Kobe Bryant is frustrated with the futility of the Los Angeles Lakers. When Swaggy P is the second best player on your team, and you are accustomed to competing for championships, frustration is expected. However, that does not mean that all of Europe is better or more skilled at basketball than the U.S. When Kobe said:

“I just think European players are just way more skillful. They are just taught the game the right way at an early age. … They’re more skillful. It’s something we really have to fix. We really have to address that. We have to teach our kids to play the right way.”

I imagine that he was comparing his favorite teammate (Pau Gasol) to his current teammates, and his comparison is correct. In that instance, Gasol is more skilled than any of his current teammates. That comparison does not make his rant the truth across the entire NBA or basketball in general. However, the standard response on Twitter and the blogosphere was agreement. Of course Kobe is right; he is Kobe Bryant.

Since Kobe’s rant, a lot has been written about his statements, including my takes on the veracity of his comments and some forgotten negatives of the European system. While the conversation lingered, I decided to link to some older articles related to the subject and to some of the frequent comments about AAU.

One frequent complaint about AAU is that it devalues winning. From a competitive standpoint, that is a negative and very frustrating for coaches. However, from an emotional, societal standpoint, is it really that bad?

Of course, on the girls’ side, I reacted to tweets from writers who complained about teams trying to win summer games, as opposed to showcasing players.

Kobe complained about the emphasis on winning at young ages, which is a problem, but he teaches the Flex offense at his summer camp. Nothing wrong with the Flex offense, but it takes time to teach and learn. What happens when the players return to their teams, and they do not run the Flex? Did they learn anything useful for their next season? Did they develop skills?

Lost in the focus on AAU is high school basketball. If players are as unskilled as Kobe suggests, and they play high school and AAU basketball, why is the blame on AAU and not high school? or both? The high school schedule is not designed for skill or player development, but nobody makes that argument or offers an alternative.

As for the European system versus U.S. system, for youth teams, Saturday games is a major advantage compared to the high-school schedule. Also, everywhere outside the U.S. abides by FIBA rules, including a 24-second shot clock starting with u15s, I believe. A shot clock increases opportunities for skill development.

The focus on skill development as opposed to games also is misguided as many activities that are labeled as skill training have no relationship with the game or game performance. The purpose of practice is to improve game performance, not to practice for the sake of practice. Many guys who label themselves as skills trainers are nothing more than maintainers, and many skills trainers fail.

Despite the indictments of AAU, it is closer to the European model, and has some potential advantages.

Are there problems with basketball in the United States? Yes. I wrote an entire book on the subject in 2006, which criticized the current state of the game in the U.S. and proposed changes, such as the Elite Development League. However, AAU is a scapegoat. If players are unskilled, as Kobe suggested, high-school coaches, college coaches, and individual skill trainers deserve some of the blame, just as they deserve some of the credit for the development of the skilled players like Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant, and others.

AAU is an easy scapegoat because its purpose is unclear. Is AAU basketball for competition? Is it for exposure? Is it for player development? Now, with high-school teams competing year-round, are the spring and summer AAU (club) tournaments for team development? AAU is an easy target because everyone else (college coaches, the media, high school coaches, skills trainers) needs something different from it financially and professionally. When these interests praise or criticize AAU, they do so selfishly, not to promote the best interests of the game or the players. High school coaches want more control of their players; skills trainers want more time for workouts ($$); college coaches want better players, but they also want the ease of watching the college-bound players; the media wants more access to players for evaluations and rankings; the NBA just wants a way to profit from the games. None, as a group, is overly concerned with the game or the players. AAU (really a misnomer, as many events are outside of AAU), of course, does itself no favors with its constant games, outrageous fees, and the occasional unscrupulous coach. Truth be told, nobody is right in the argument because AAU (club basketball) is many things to many people, and it combines the best and the worst.

AAU is not the problem or the solution. AAU is a part of the system. Changes must occur on individual levels in terms of the way that parents and coaches approach youth sports. Leagues can lead the way by providing more developmental alternatives to the hyper-competitive leagues and tournaments. Youth sports is not a race; long term development is important.

By Brian McCormick, PhD
Director of Coaching, Playmakers Basketball Development League
Author, The 21st Century Basketball Practice

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