Maximizing Player Development Opportunities for the Elite High School Athlete

Complaints litter prep Internet message boards, as parents, players and coaches rant about incompetent high school coaches, illegal recruiting, persistent transfers, the AAU battle, and illegal off-season practices. Just a cursory glance at the typical board leads one to believe the entire system needs cataclysmic changes, yet none occur, except minor modifications of the current, out-dated system.

The 21st Century presents new high school athletic challenges and opportunities. With the sacred college scholarship, not the state championship, as the common goal, players constantly shop for the best opportunity, best training, and the most exposure. Increasingly, this combination requires a year-round commitment; not just to the sport, but to teams. High school teams, or their pseudo-club impersonators, play year-round, competing in the “off-season” with competitive club teams that play regional or national schedules. High school athletes, therefore, commit to two teams through much of the year, playing a pre-professional schedule. Rare is the athlete who excels in multiple sports, as the commitment level to participate at the elite level in multiple sports is daunting, not to mention the typical academic-load of a college hopeful.

“Jen,” a player I train in the off-season, traveled constantly this summer, seeking exposure up and down the West Coast, chasing the elusive “Free Ride.” She fulfilled commitments to her high school team-a team with nobody close to her ability-wise-as well as her AAU Team, a constantly shuffling menagerie of coaches and players, depending upon the weekend and everyone’s other basketball commitments. Her games with her high school were largely a waste, playing with inferior players against mostly inferior players, while her AAU games offered little consistency or coaching, despite the more talented teammates and competition.

This, unfortunately, is the state of 21st Century basketball for the elite player. Many play on high school teams where each player’s goal is not a “Free Ride,” but a good athletic experience; there is nothing wrong with that goal. Athletics, especially high school athletics, should provide this opportunity, as sports can mean a myriad of things to different people, from simple exercise to team camaraderie to a reason to stay in school to the opportunity to provide a college education. However, what happens to the elite athlete when his goals exceed his teammates to a tremendous degree?

Coaches must organize a practice to improve their team, and this often means trying to elevate the level of the average players, with little time to really elevate the level of the elite player. Coaches teach and instruct to the bottom half of the group, leaving an elite player on his own to find ways to improve his game. He must search elsewhere to find a competitive experience in training and in games. This requires the second-season, or the AAU circuit.

Unfortunately, this opportune time for player development is lost as teams travel constantly to games to seek exposure, almost completely neglecting practices. Jen’s adventures up and down the coast helped her get noticed by a few schools who have written letters, but did little to make her a better player. She played against some better competition, but her team was rarely prepared for these games, as the practice time was scarce. Her team was lucky to have the same ten players from one week to the next. But, this is the current system, where student-athletes spend their entire summer in search of exposure, traveling nearly every weekend from the spring until fall to play in front of college coaches or recruiting services in order to get a look or a little interest from a scout/coach who might offer a free college education.

But, does this system do anything to develop the elite player’s skills? After all, a college-bound player must possess the ability to play at the next level. Players show incremental improvement because they spend the entire year in a gym, playing in some capacity almost every day, so they develop in some ways just from their comfort-level on the court and through hours of practice, regardless of how disorganized or ineffective it may be. Those who do play for good AAU or high school coaches are very fortunate and also develop new and advanced skills.

However, is incremental improvement the goal? In school, when a student is an exceptional student, does he remain with peers, some needing remedial work, or is he accelerated into a different program in order to facilitate better learning and development opportunities? Why stand for a system designed to try and catch-up average players to the exceptional? Why not seek a solution to sustain development for the average player as well as the elite athlete? School spirit aside, elite players deserve a better player development system.

Soccer players often forsake uncompetitive high school teams and leagues to compete year-round with competitive clubs who offer more talented, committed teammates, superior training and competitive matches. If soccer, a secondary sport, can offer its athletes greater opportunities beyond that which the high schools offer, why not basketball?

The current AAU/club system fails to capitalize on its potential to create a competitive environment and enhance the elite player’s development. Instead, many clubs focus on exposure, not development, and coaches act like agents, not teachers, procuring the most talented players, not instructing and developing players. Players hop from team to team to find the best deal and playing time, and games amount to individual showcases and pick-up affairs, with little structure, coaching and/or resemblance to organized basketball.

Instead of congesting a club “season” into three spring and summer months and focusing entirely on exposure, elite players should have the option to forsake their high school teams and play meaningful games against equal competition with good coaching in a year-round environment.

Many complain about kids and their lost youth, or not being able to play two sports, but it is a result of a system where players must play two seasons in order to attract recruiting attention. Why not promote a system where the competitive basketball is played during the basketball season, allowing players the opportunity to pursue a second sport if they choose, playing football in the fall or baseball in the spring, while not worrying about exposure events they may miss by playing a second sport?

A new system would allow more students to participate in athletics; recreational or average players who play sports for fun, camaraderie, school spirit and exercise would have a competitive playing experience competing for their high school teams, while the elite, gifted, driven and committed players who desire a more intense atmosphere and higher level training would challenge themselves with and against like-minded, skilled teammates and opponents, better preparing these players for the next level. And, it would force Internet pundits to complain about something else.

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