A few summers ago I was in a facility in Texas recruiting for my college at a Spring AAU event. This facility housed 10 different courts, all of which had games going on simultaneously. The event itself was taking place across three locations each location with six-plus gyms. As I was walking between courts an individual stopped me to ask a question. His question was, “Is this worth the money?”
This was a unique question. Usually, if a parent stopped me it was to tell me that their kid was playing on a certain court or at a certain time. This individual wasn’t concerned about that, he just wanted to know if it was worth his money. My answer was, “It depends.”
I should have started by saying, I have nothing inherently against AAU. My first coaching opportunity was with an AAU program. Playing AAU can be an amazing and fun opportunity for athletes. One thing parents and players need to understand though is AAU is a business and businesses run to make money. Choosing to participate is going to be costly and only you can decide if the expense is worth it.
Every year I’ve been involved with High School basketball, parents will ask me what I think about their child playing AAU. My answer is always the same as it was for that gentleman, “It depends.” I follow that up with, “What are you looking to get from the experience?”
Reasons why people tell me they are interested in playing AAU (or having their kid play) include all their friends are doing it, I don’t want them to fall behind, I want them to get seen by college coaches, I want them to face tougher competition, and AAU team X has helped this player and that player get into the college they can help mine. Here are some of my thoughts and suggestions connected to each of those reasons.
All my friends are doing it – If your sole reason for participating is social, and you can afford it, absolutely play AAU. It’ll be some of the most fun you have playing. There is much less pressure than in season, you can potentially choose the people you play with, and you get to travel and see places.
I don’t want to fall behind – If the only way you’ll play basketball between the end of season and start of next season is by playing AAU then you should play or you will fall behind. But you can improve your game without ever playing AAU. It will cost you significantly less money and time to just focus on doing skill development in your home gym than it will playing AAU.
I want them to be seen by college coaches – College coaches attend AAU events through the spring and summer. Us at the Division 3 level can attend events at any time of the year. Division 2 and 1 have more restrictions on the times they can be in the gym. Here is something to know though, this is not the only way to be seen.
Before we attended any event we reached out to our coaching network to find out what kids we should be looking at. Then we would attend those kid's games at the event. As I mentioned before, games are going on across multiple courts and multiple facilities. We may watch a single half of a game before moving on to the next court or gym to check out other players.
So some quick math, if I watch one half of your game, presumably 20 minutes and in that half, you play during 10 of those minutes, are you doing anything that stands out? My suggestion is if your goal is to get seen, make sure you have the skillset first. Your time and money is better spent on getting better before you worry about getting seen
I want to face tougher competition - You definitely may face tougher competition at an AAU tournament. Remember though anyone can play AAU that is willing to play so you may also face some teams that are not as talented as what you face during the season. The first AAU team I coached was made up of 12 players who didn't make their school team, whose parents wanted them to get some playing time. Every weekend we went to events and most weekends we got beat handily.
The tougher competition also does not mean better basketball. The style of basketball played at these events is much different than what you will face in season or college. Due to the nature of AAU, there is an offensive focus and the officiating is a lot looser because you have to keep games moving on time. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing because you can work on things during AAU you might not get the chance to do during your school season, but it’s important to not transfer bad habits from AAU season into school season.
AAU Team X has helped players XYZ into a college they can help me - AAU programs are businesses and as such, they are smart promoters. They are going to let you know the success their athletes have had. Someone else's success does not guarantee success for you. These programs usually have far more players who have come through and not gotten into college than they have who have gotten in. Yes, these coaches sometimes know college coaches but if you aren’t already talented enough and haven’t built the skills they still aren’t going to be able to get you any more opportunities.
Ultimately my thoughts on whether you should or shouldn’t play come down to this: if you are already a high school-aged varsity level athlete or you are solely playing for the social aspect, go for it. If you are a sub-varsity level player or in middle school or below, your time and money would be better spent focusing on developing your skills first.
“Are you blind?” “You’re missing a good game out there, ref.” “Come on, that was a foul!” “Are you kidding me?” “3 seconds!!!!” “That’s a travel”
These are just a few of the things you’ll hear if you come to any high school basketball game. For the men and women that commit their time to officiate these sports for a measly $65 a game or less this is their norm. No matter the outcome of the game 50% or more of the crowd leaves upset and angry at them. Blaming the refs for their team’s inability to secure victory. It's no wonder leagues are struggling to find people to do the job.
One thing I’ve always found fascinating though is no one thanks the refs when they win. If we are going to say they are the deciding factor in a game, then they deserve as much praise when you win. You can’t just blame them for the bad and not give them credit for the good.
Reading that statement probably made you feel a certain way. You might be saying, “Coach that’s stupid, of course the refs weren’t the reason we won.” And I would agree, they absolutely aren’t, just like they aren’t the reason you lost. It’s time we stop wasting energy on berating officials and put that energy into supporting the athletes. Officials will absolutely miss calls or make a bad call, just like players miss shots and turn the ball over or coaches substitute the wrong person, call the wrong play, and wait too long to call time out. That’s part of being human. But the team that focuses on the controllable is usually the one that sees the best results in the long run.
In our program we constantly remind our athletes of the fact we are in sole control of our destiny. We determine what outcomes we get, no one else. This is an important life mindset. When you take ownership of your success and failures you have control over your life.
I believe this mindset paid off for our team and will continue to pay dividends for the players long into the future.
So how do you adopt this approach? Try these simple things.
One of the things that Maine is known for is their beautiful coast lines and the lighthouses that adorn the shorelines. While these lighthouses have become somewhat of a tourist destination, their original purpose was much greater. The purpose of the lighthouse is to serve as a navigation aid for those at sea. They provide warning to oncoming ships of potential hazards while guiding them through the night and storms safely to shore.
A few years back, I started asking my players “Who is going to be our lighthouse?” Specifically, I brought this up when talking about playing a particularly chaotic pressing team. I wanted to know who was going to be the calm steadying force that would guide us through the storm that was their non stop full court pressure. Since then my definition of a “lighthouse” on the floor has expanded. Here are some of the qualities I now associate with being a lighthouse:
Over the course of the season 8 different players were recognized as the lighthouse of the game. Those who earned the lighthouse ranged from our 2nd team All-Conference players to a swing player who didn’t see more than twenty minutes of floor time on the season. Some days I awarded it, others the assistant coaches did, the team voted a few times, and even once the previous winner awarded it.
What we found is we all started to recognize and appreciate these qualities in ourselves and our teammates. We understood that these qualities had a greater impact on our overall future success than who may have scored the most points or had the most rebounds. In tense moments, I could look at players and simply say “lighthouse”, “come back to shore”, or “don’t get caught in the storm” and they would be reminded of the traits that make us successful.
So to any players reading this, I ask you to think about how you can be a lighthouse for your team? What ways can you be the beacon of light that guides them safely towards where you want them to go?
For the coaches that may be checking it out, how are you at being your teams lighthouse? In the chaos and storm of a game, where is your light guiding them? Also I’m curious, in what ways you instill these or similar traits with your teams?
I was recently speaking with a fellow coach as he was preparing for his upcoming State Championship game. For those who have been a part of any big game in sports, you know it can be a stressful time and there is some pressure associated with being in that position. This is the type of game you’ve spent your life preparing for. It is easy to get lost in that anxiety.
Knowing he may be going through this very inner turmoil, I suggested one simple activity to put everything in perspective. I told him that when he got a chance, I wanted him to sit down and write about all the things he’s grateful for from this season both basketball and non-basketball related. To write down all the accomplishments and things he appreciated about his team. I told him doing this would remind him of how successful a season he had and help remind him that the outcome of the game wouldn’t define him or his players, everything they’d done all season is what would define them.
Later that day I got a text saying, “Damnit coach you didn’t tell me I’d need tissues for this exercise”. I knew the exercise had worked. It is important as coaches and players that we don’t get so lost in the destination that we forget the beauty of the journey. At the end of every season, only one team gets to win their last game but so many more succeed. Don’t wait to appreciate those accomplishments until the season has passed, appreciate them every day.
Unfortunately, my friend’s team was unable to win their game. I had one text to him immediately after the game “Nothing I can say will make you feel better right now, but when you get home reread those things you wrote down and I guarantee that’ll help.” Speaking with him later he said it helped put things back in perspective after the game.
By writing what we are grateful for ahead of time we put ourselves in a position to succeed. We approach the game with a mindset of appreciation for the opportunity. Then if things don’t go our way, we are able to read our own words after to remind us of all the things we have to be grateful for. This simple task could completely change your approach to a game and how you deal with loss following the game.
So next time you have a big game give it a try and let me know how it works for you.
State championship winning basketball coach, Chris Woodside, shares his journey of going from varsity boys coach, to becoming a men's college coach, to currently coaching girls varsity basketball as well as life lessons learned on + off the court.