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.
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.