Is AAU a Help or a Hindrance to Girls’ Basketball Development?

Girls’ basketball continues to improve, ascending to new heights each year due to Title IX’s positive effects creating opportunities for girls’ sports and increasing participation rate among females. Coaching and training methods improve, annually and more and more programs, camps and teams are female-centered, realizing the difference in training methods and personalities between male and female players.

At the forefront of this development is AAU basketball, as girls’ basketball is the most popular sport within the AAU organization. AAU/club basketball has created a youth development system where players compete year-round from an early age. With more and more girls competing every year, competition stiffens and more and better players are produced.

However, AAU’s prominence is not always positive, as the three-sport athlete is disappearing because coaches want players to concentrate on one sport, injuries are increasing due to overuse and families are spending beyond their means to chase an elusive college scholarship.

According to NCAA statistics, 456,900 girls compete in high school basketball. There are 14,400 NCAA women’s basketball student-athletes, meaning only 3.1% of high school girls’ basketball players play NCAA basketball, yet many parents believe AAU participation leads to a college scholarship as the next logical step.

When researching AAU involvement, I asked 20-25 random parents about the expense of AAU involvement. Respondents answered they spent anywhere from $600 to $12,000 for a year of basketball, when factoring club fees, uniforms, tournaments, travel, etc, and most placed the sum between $2000-$5000 for one year. Additionally, it was not uncommon for parents to drive players an hour each way two to three times a week for practice in addition to traveling to weekend tournaments.

At the high school level, recruiting spurs the year-round schedules of players seeking college scholarships. As more and more high school players play club basketball, more high school coaches form their own high school club teams, allowing players to play for one coach throughout the year. Once some coaches started their year-round teams, others followed, and now it seems every high school basketball is year-round, with some elite players committed to two teams during the spring and summer; one with their high school coach and one to gain exposure at higher profile tournaments.

Several low to mid major Division I assistant coaches offered analysis on the recruiting scene. Each emphasized AAU basketball’s importance on recruiting, as they estimated 75% to 100% of their players played high school AAU basketball. Furthermore, due to NCAA legislation, staffs attended between 40 to 60 high school basketball games and 400 to 750 AAU/club games during the summer. With these types of numbers, players understand their best chance to receive a scholarship is to play during the summer.

However, playing is not enough; girls must possess the skills and athleticism to warrant a college scholarship offer. Unfortunately, AAU basketball may not aid this development, as “The individual development is lacking at the AAU level,” according to one West Coast Conference Assistant Coach.

A Big West Conference Assistant Coach believed AAU/club basketball has helped girls’ basketball development because “the game has grown stronger as more and more girls are able to play basketballâÂ?¦the players are just able to do more things. Better feel for the game, better knowledge of the game; those sorts of things.”

Beyond individual skill development, the year-round play creates an environment where some players may burn out or even suffer injuries from too much activity. In Sacramento, some high school teams do not take a full week off between elimination from the high school play-offs and the first spring practice. Every weekend, girls spend hours in gyms waiting and playing games. However, most players see the ball for less than 2:00 per game, so their dedication fails to reward them with new and better skills.

The WCC Assistant Coach said, “I think burnout is a problem because the kids play too many summer games. Also, injuries occur because a lot of teams do not take breaks during the summer recruiting period.”

In addition to the injuries and burnout is the stress the players feel as they play in front of college coaches all summer. As another Big West Conference Assistant Coach said, “I would say that this process has added a lot of stress to a group of kids that range between 15 and 17 years of age. Now kids pay a tremendous amount of money to play ball for three weeks in the summer. They do not get to practice the game or develop skills during that time. And they are followed around by a high number of college coaches who want the kids to decide on a school ‘now’ so we can fill our roster or move on to the next recruit. Sometimes, especially at the end of the July period, when kids are tired to the bone and play is really sloppy I truly wonder and wish kids are having a good time on the court and enjoying the game. I think sometimes we lose sight of that.”

Yet the recruiting period is unlikely to change, as it adds convenience for college coaches and the competition for the coaching jobs and players increases annually, as television exposure and revenue drive coaching salaries higher and higher and more universities illustrate a desire to have a strong women’s athletic program. So, in many ways, players with college aspirations are stuck in the system.

And, as the WCC Assistant Coach added, this system produces three types of coaches: “Lastly, I’ll say there are 3 types of AAU coaches. 1) He/she does it to make money. Their number one priority is to use kids to make money. 2) He/se does it for ego. They want to talk to college coaches, have coaches kissing their butt to get a kid and feel like they are more important than they probably are. 3) He/she does it because they want to see the kids improve, they want to help the kids get exposure and they do it for the right reasons.”

The players’ experiences are symptomatic of these coaches, and, unfortunately, few of the teams featuring the elite players are run by coaches like category #3. Thus, the high exposure teams are run by those trying to make money or inflate their ego, and kids are caught in the middle. These coaches act more like player agents than basketball coaches, and as a result, players often have a less than desirable experience (which explains the constant jumping from team to team) and fail to improve.

AAU basketball, in theory, is a positive for the development of the women’s game. However, in practice, little is gained. If you’re good enough, a college recruiter will find you. But, the only way to warrant a college scholarship is to have the athleticism, size and skills to play at the next level, and playing in tournament after tournament during the course of the summer fails to enhance any of the three.

Overall, playing lots of games is better than not playing anything. However, early specialization limits other meaningful opportunities and increases the likelihood of injuries. Kids need balance between basketball and other activities and within basketball. They need time alone on a court to learn new skills and work on their shooting and they need to play games to gain confidence and have fun.

But, game after game after game, without balance, leads to burnout and unfulfilled expectations.

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