Saturday, May 21, 2016

High School vs. AAU

High school vs. AAU basketball has been a hot topic on Twitter lately. Recently an AAU coach in Iowa sent out a letter to his players. He suggested that his players not play with their high school team in the summer. Since everyone else is weighing in on this topic, I decided to take the advice of
  The Common Man - "Why not me, why not now?". I've coached both high school and AAU and think I can bring a pragmatic perspective to this - not that a single person cares about my perspective. So with that said, here are some random thoughts about high school and AAU.

First of all, I still agree with Brian McCormick that having both AAU and HS puts pressure on players to be in performance mode all the time. They are competing and trying to win for their high school in the winter, then doing the same for AAU in the spring, doing the same for BOTH in the summer. Throw in a fall league for good measure (AAU now has them too) and players are never out of competition mode. So we complain players don't work on skills, but WHEN should they work on them? So from that aspect I would like to see some changes made - not sure what they are. But anything to let players have a designated time to work on fundamental skills.

Second, AAU and HS provide different, but important, experiences for our players. In fact I think they need each other. What we need to help players understand is that AAU and HS provide two different services for an athlete but both are important. High school coaches have more time with their athletes during the year and thus take a big hand in developing players from skills to IQ. They also have more control over expectations in the class room. AAU is where players are allowed to show what they are capable of against high competition - and to get that buzz word: "exposure". Without AAU it would be harder for kids in a state like mine (Minnesota) to be seen by college coaches at every level across the country. Yearly, our AAU clubs and coaches give opportunities to kids that would not be otherwise possible. I know many kids who got the opportunity to play college basketball at a level they may not have without playing AAU. Other kids were able to find an opportunity at a non-scholarship school that may have not known about them otherwise. Many of the AAU programs and coaches in our state our a valuable resource and have helped to grow our game.

I'm not trying to say AAU doesn't develop. But there just isn't enough practice time usually for substantial development to take place. For example, I coached a middle school AAU team a few years ago. We practiced three times a week, two hours a day. Each night we devoted at least an hour to skills. This is more practice time than a traditional AAU team, and I still didn't feel like I had enough time to practice. Juxtapose (yup, just wrote that word) this with high school. As a high school coach I am in the gym practicing 2 hours a day with our players between 3 and 6 days a week in the winter. That's a lot more time to develop players. Then, additionally we work with our players 4x a week for 2 hours in the summer (skills for 1:15, lifting for 45). As a high school coach there is a lot more time to help players develop than AAU coaches have. It's math. Players need to understand and value the amount of hours they spend with their high school team and use them to develop so they don't get exposed. Where AAU coaches CAN (and do) help their players develop is giving their players good coaching against high level competition.

But I have an issue with everyone touting all AAU as "high level competition". The fact is that everyone can play, and everyone does play. So unless you are on a truly high level AAU team the competition you face is going to be a mixed bag at best.

I also think that both high school and AAU give kids a unique experience that the other can not provide them. AAU allows players to compete against kids from across the country and see how they stack up as players. It allows them to play on a team with a group of people who are just as crazy about basketball as they are. Many times this is not be true with their high school teams. It also gives them a different experience and a different "voice" when it comes to coaching. It also allows them to feel like they've gotten a fair shake or a fair look when it comes to being able to play college basketball at the next level. It gives them an opportunity to be seen. Our Minnesota kids get to travel the country, experience different things, and make lifetime friendships. I can't fault them for that.

On the other hand, high school basketball is a special thing. I know that AAU players and teams bond, but I'm not sure it's the same type of bond as the bond with your high school teammates who you are around all years. There is no other time in a young person's life where you can have this kind of experience. It's why I coach. There is something magical to me about spending a winter with a group of people, getting to know each other closely, and being able to represent your school and community. Nothing compares to that feeling. Also, high school basketball has certain accountabilities that are not present in AAU. Students who play high school have to be academically and behaviorally accountable to be eligible to play. While some programs monitor these things, there is no accountability at the top.

In terms of coaches at each level, there is good and bad in both. My issue with AAU is that there is no one that governs who can be coaches, what is accepted behavior, etc. There is no certification or checks and balances. ANYONE can be an AAU coach - and anyone is. The other part of AAU is that there are currently so many players that the demand for coaches out paces the amount of ready/good coaches. So you end up with people coaching just to be helpful, but who don't know the game. You end up with young coaches who don't understand what it is to be a coach but are handed a team and wished good luck. My first job as a coach was as an assistant freshmen coach. I was under a head varsity coach and head freshmen coach who taught me the ropes - and etiquette. Every time I see an #AAUBingo I kind of feel bad for the coach who likely doesn't even know they don't know. With that said, there are some FANTASTIC coaches in AAU who make our kids better. Many of them are high school and college coaches who "get it" and send kids back to their high school teams better.  And on the other hand there are many not so great high school coaches who exhibit #AAUBINGO behavior. I saw a JV coach at a large school coaching a game in a True Religion t-shirt, flip flops, jeans, and a winter hat. And he coached about how you would expect. It was as much of a clown show as any #AAUBINGO. If he would have been coaching an AAU game his picture would have been plastered all over Twitter.

In closing I want to say this. Basketball is a fun and beautiful game. Players should have JOY while playing the game. But I feel like JOY is too often missing. Why? Because we, the adults, can become so childish and selfish about it. You have to ask yourself "are you jealous"? I know I get jealous of AAU coaches who get to travel the country and just focus on helping kids get scholarships or the opportunity to play in college (the fun stuff!). I wish I had the time and flexibility. We also need to keep in mind that anything the player accomplishes is on the player. No AAU coach has ever gotten a kid a scholarship - the player's talent has. Just like no HS coach has really developed a player - that player's hard work, passion, and effort did. No AAU coach should send out an e-mail telling players not to play with their high school team - just like no high school coach should tell players not to play AAU. Support these kids and ensure that they have a great experience playing this game - because they only play it once. And we all know deep down that when every player's playing days are done they will remember how they felt more than anything. And we on both sides (HS/AAU) need to do a better job of supporting each other and supporting our players. I love this game, I love working with young people, and I want to see our game continue to grow. If coaches on both sides don't work together and support each other, we're only hurting the players and the game.