The AAU vs. High School Debate

Every year, the debate rages between high school coaches and AAU coaches. The problem, of course, is that there is no such thing as The High School Coach or The AAU Coach. There is very little consistency between one high school coach and another, just as there is little consistency between one AAU coach and another. Coaches, by and large, are individuals. Some are good at what they do, and some are not.

When you play for a high school team, there is no guarantee that your coach will be good or bad. He may be a teacher or not. He may have years of experience or none at all. The same holds true for AAU coaches.

Therefore, the arguments made by AAU coaches that high school coaches are bad or by high school coaches that AAU coaches are bad are foolhardy. Some high school coaches are bad. Some AAU coaches are bad. Some high school coaches are good. Some AAU coaches are good. However, one cannot generalize that because one is a high school coach, he is automatically good. Heck, one cannot generalize that just because one is a college coach, he is a good coach or better than a high school or AAU coach.

However, every year, the arguments start anew as high school coaches attack AAU coaches and AAU coaches attack high school coaches.

High school coaches often make two arguments:

  1. I don’t want my kids running something that is NOT part of our system.
  2. Players return from the summer with worse fundamentals.

There are two important answers:

First, coaches are far too protective of their systems. Before a coach concentrates on his system, the players should understand the basic skills generally. I have used Vern Gambetta’s concept of adapted vs. adaptable previously on this subject. If I only teach my players to run the Flex offense, and players learn to use a screen only in the context of the Flex, they are adapted to the offense. There is no guarantee that they can transfer their adapted knowledge to a new situation or new system. However, if I teach the general use of a screen, players are adaptable to any system, whether Flex, motion or whatever.

If a coach – AAU or high school – really wants to develop a player, he or she should develop the general skills first before translating the general skills to a specific system. If coaches focus on the general skill development, then they should not worry about whether or not the player is learning something outside their specific system. Learning how to use a screen generally will make a player more effective within his coach’s specific system because he will read and react to the defense better.

Second, during the competitive season, fundamental skill execution decreases because the emphasis is game performance, not fundamental development. When I train players, their fundamental skills are worse right after the high school season than they were when the season started, and they are worse at the end of the summer season than they were at the beginning.

This is not an AAU vs. high school argument. This is a periodization argument: competition vs. training. The competitive season is not conducive to true skill development because of the performance demands. Therefore, skill development occurs during the off-season, between competitive seasons. However, in today’s environment, this off-season time for training is reduced because of players going from the high school season directly to the AAU season or because high school programs play year-round as a club program.

The problem, then, is not AAU or high school. The problems occur when players as young as nine play for Peak by Friday coaches who are more concerned with their specific system and winning their next game rather than teaching general skills and preparing players for the next level too. When this happens, the coach at each subsequent level gets players who are unprepared to play generally, so they install their specific system. This progression goes on and on, and players never really develop the general skills to apply to different situations because nobody wants to be the coach who sacrifices a win or two to teach general skills since we (the general public) evaluate coaches based on wins and losses (what we see during games), not how well they develop their players or prepare them for the next competitive level (what occurs in practice).

Therefore, the problem occurs because there is a breakdown in communication between different coaches (AAU and high school) and different levels. I believe playing for different coaches who emphasize and teach different things is valuable. I encourage players who I train to tryout different trainers because another trainer might be better at something than me or might see something that I miss. However, as I described in my last blog, when there is no communication between coaches, players often over-train and over-compete. Also, when there is no set progression for skills from one level to the next (from 5th grade to 6th grade), each coach starts over at the beginning of the season. No coach is certain of the skills or concepts that his players learned in the previous season because the players played for several different teams and coaches, each of whom may have taught different things in different ways.

The problem, then, is not that AAU is better or worse than the school system. The problem is that each system has short-comings that impact the coaching in each setting. Rather than arguing about which system is better, coaches should focus on improving the respective systems.

A school program has the advantage because it can create a progression from year to year to teach the general skills to freshman so the varsity coach can concentrate on his specific system. A school that creates a feeder program into its junior high schools and elementary schools has an even greater advantage: some of the best high school programs in the country have extensive feeder programs that fuel the high school program.

On the other hand, a club program that starts with young players can have a great impact because they start with players at a pivotal age. If a club program runs a long term program and creates a progression from season to season for its players, it has an opportunity to allow players to play with different coaches while providing continuity of development through the pivotal developmental years. However, this takes organization and communication between its coaches, as well as patience by parents to invest in one program rather than hopscotching from program to program to find more playing time or exposure.

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~ by Brian McCormick on June 4, 2009.

3 Responses to “The AAU vs. High School Debate”

  1. Great article, Brian. It seems like every great program has a good feeder system down to the youth level.

    However, there are some programs that fail with feeder systems, because they run them improperly. They pick the best 3rd graders and keep the same group of players all the way to high school. The games to practice ratio is 2 to 1 or higher. They pigeon-hole players into positions. I have 10 year old cousin who they told to stand under the hoop the whole game and get the player to someone who can dribble as soon as she gets the ball. They rarely work on skills & teaching the game. They just work on presses and plays. These feeder systems are counter-productive.

    I know you do not promote the latter feeder system, but I just thought I would add that comment.

  2. Brian,

    #1. In general, I agree with what you’re saying here.

    Training, Playing and Recovering need to be implemented in a co-ordinated way, and be progressive in nature, from one sport season to the next and one year to another.

    Sound communication between all the parties involved is a key component to this process.

    In the absence of sound communication, however … IMO, an individual player is better off sticking with one sound coach, connected with one sound team, as opposed to spreading him/herself around into several different environments.

    #2. re: Second, during the competitive season, fundamental skill execution decreases because the emphasis is game performance, not fundamental development. When I train players, their fundamental skills are worse right after the high school season than they were when the season started, and they are worse at the end of the summer season than they were at the beginning.

    This is not an AAU vs. high school argument. This is a periodization argument: competition vs. training. The competitive season is not conducive to true skill development because of the performance demands.

    IMO, there are two components to what you’ve said here that are not accurate.

    1. Fundamental skill execution should not necessarily decrease during the competitive season.

    2. Although the competitive season may not be highly conducive for enhancing a player’s skill development/level … that is not the same thing as suggesting a player’s level of fundamental skill execution necessarily decreases during a competitive sport season … which is conducted properly.

    If the latter is indeed the case then, IMO, that player’s coach does not know what s/he is doing, as far as fundamental skill development and maintenance are concerned.

  3. The same holds true with the individual trainers as well. While you may be a good or great individual trainer, there are just as many bad ones out there as well. In my experiences with baseball coaches at the personal training level, I have found more that create problems than help. There are also those out there that do a great job. One of the biggest problems we had was the in season training for pitchers. A player would go to the trainer on Tuesday to get mechanical work done, and throw 70 pitches in a pen session, unknown to me. I would pencil the kid in to start on Wednesday after I had him throw a 50 pitch pen on Monday. Just before game time, he is complaining of dead arm. Shutting him down for a few days, I have him throw 30 pitches in game on Friday. Then he would go to his travel team on Saturday and throw 80 pitches. After 3 weeks of this type of issues, and several conversations with the player, the parents would complain that he is not getting any innings.

    I guess my point is that it is more than just a 2 headed monster, and I can only assume that it is the same in basketball.

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