Sports

Taking a hard look at AAU basketball

Justis column: Are young basketball players getting too banged up?

Is AAU basketball demandning too much from young players? (The Gazette)
Is AAU basketball demandning too much from young players? (The Gazette)

I’m putting myself out here on this one.

There are two sides to every issue and I’m trying to encourage a discussion about AAU basketball.

I have not played basketball at any level. I was a competitive swimmer. Now I am a grandmother watching her 11-year-old grandson play basketball, which has included one year at the AAU level.

I decided to write on this topic after reading a Yahoo Sports article where LeBron James was quoted as saying, “... kids are going into the (NBA) already banged up, and I think coaches and parents need to know (that) ... AAU coaches don’t give a (expletive). AAU coaches couldn’t give a damn about a kid and what his body is going through.”

Strong language from one of the best professional players of all time. James gave the interview that covered the state of “load management,” described as a “draining AAU culture that leads to destruction, how he monitors his sons’ involvement, and preventable measures to ensure that kids aren’t being taken advantage of and physically damaged before beginning their professional careers.”

James said, “I think (AAU) has something to do with (physical damage). It was a few tournaments where my kids ... had five games in one day and that’s just “(expletive) out of control. There was a case study ... and it was talking about the causes and (kids’) bodies already being broken down and they (attributed) it to AAU basketball and how many games that these tournaments are having for the (financial benefit). I’m very conscious for my own son because that’s all I can control, and if my son says he’s sore or he’s tired, he’s not playing.”

I know several current and former collegiate players who played AAU basketball. I know two sons of a college coach — one of who plays AAU ball and the other who doesn’t.

“He doesn’t like AAU ball because he doesn’t get to practice enough,” the mother said.

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James said there are many more tournaments today and more showcases. He said it’s important parents educate themselves on the difference between a quality AAU program and the ones that are “merely seeking money and running kids into the ground.” He wants to prevent underprivileged kids and families from being taken advantage of.

Brendan Winters, writing for Pro Skills Basketball, the biggest problem is “the enormous emphasis on winning that too many coaches of young teams focus on during the critical years of skill development.” He noted coaches don’t coach young players to their maturity and age level.

“What ends up happening is you have third-graders jacking up contested 3-point shots with terrible form for a whole game because they’re not strong enough to shoot with good form, not smart or experienced enough yet to penetrate zone off the dribble, and not strong enough to throw skip passes.”

Within his organization, kids practice twice per week for two to three hours total as a team and he allows teams to play two tournaments per month on average.

“The majority of AAU teams don’t practice enough and play too many games,” he wrote.

I’ve seen this. Winters wrote because teams are focused too much on winning “oftentimes teams simply want the most talented kids possible, so they’ll take players from all over the place regardless of where they live because they believe talent is more important than skills ... (This) makes it virtually impossible to practice because there is not a time or place that works for the whole team. Instead, teams simply go to tournaments, roll the ball out, and try to ‘out-talent’ the other team.”

Without practice time together, how are players’ individual skills supposed to improve?

Another of his biggest issues in youth basketball is even at the youngest levels, teams are traveling great distances to play in “showcase” tournaments. Who is watching besides parents? Not college coaches at this age.

“Time could be much better spent practicing at home rather than (sitting) on a plane or driving or (sitting) in a hotel ... and all that just to try and win a second-grade or fifth-grade or whatever-grade tournament?

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“These issues that start at the youth level create the biggest long-term problems because many kids end up in high school with ABSOLUTELY no basketball foundation on which to build on ... changes need to be made and AAU coaches and organizations need to be held to a higher standard in order to fix the bigger picture, long-term problems.”

Yes, AAU basketball can provide longtime relationships and growth in areas of sportsmanship, teamwork, confidence-building and so many other lifelong lessons, if done correctly. But it doesn’t have to be AAU ball.

Make sure the kids are learning skills from trained coaches, that they are having fun and aren’t being subjected to so much pressure they quit at early ages. Make sure they play other sports so they don’t suffer injuries from specialization.

Nancy Justis is a former competitive swimmer and college sports information director. She is a partner with Outlier Creative Communications. Let her know what you think at njustis@cfu.net

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