There was once a time when kids in third or fourth grade spent most of their time on the playground, chasing each other on slides or monkey bars and playing games of tag. Now it seems like instead of innocently playing and enjoying life, kids as young as 6 or 7 are being treated with the same expectations are professional athletes.
In gyms all across North America, many AAU/Club programs are holding practices, exhibition games and seemingly endless weekend tournaments. While it is great that youth are having the opportunity to be engaged in sport, I believe there’s a point of diminishing returns. The competition may be better than your local rec league, but just how important is that for an 8- or 9-year-old kid? I think it’s fair to ask: Is the rise of AAU/Club basketball hurting young players’ development? Although there are numerous benefits that come from playing organized sports, one of the main questions surrounding the issue is are we asking and expecting too much from kids at such an early age that in the long run, their development and overall passion for the game is being put at risk?
What was once thought to be a platform for the upper-echelon high school athlete to display their skills in hopes of increasing their recruiting profile is now commodifying elementary school kids and often providing a false hope for players that they’re going to potentially be “the next big thing.” Because of the vast amount of programs to choose from, whether they be established ones or the more fly-by-night operations, players (and parents) are often seeking a place where they can be treated like a star, not necessarily a place that will be the best fit to teach and develop skills and sports maturity. If Team A doesn’t give your child the playing time you feel they deserve, there is most likely another team just down the road that will.
Although there are now more basketball programs than ever for you and your child to choose from, more doesn’t always mean better. How many of these programs are legitimate? How many have your child’s best interest in mind? What kind of credentials does the coaching staff have? What is the coaching and program philosophy, mission and goal? What is their player-to-coach ratio? How many players are they taking per team? Are there any hidden costs? What is the practice-to-game ratio? Some adults and players may not think that these are important questions to consider, but when the season is half over, and your child hasn’t seen any improvement or meaningful playing time, yet you’re shelling out thousands of dollars, you’re going to regret not giving them more consideration. This isn’t to say there aren’t AAU/Club programs that are well-run, well-coached, and that develop players the right way, but with the rapid increase in the number of overall programs in recent years, the ratio has gotten smaller.
One of the main draws for teams to attract players is the amount of games they play and the travel they embark on. Let’s face it, there are very few kids who want to spend their time in the gym working on proper footwork and form of a left-side layup as opposed to flying around the country playing games and tournaments. With new organizations popping up each season, often the only chance of a program keeping their head above water is to cater to the demand of playing games. While program A might offer more practice time and development, which in the long run will be more beneficial for young players, program B counters with fancy tracksuits and multiple travel tournaments, often attracting the more talented players. Although the latter may benefit a small minority of players, the majority remain under-developed in their skill set and in the end may actually lose passion for the game as they’re forced to ride the pine at an age where everyone just wants to play.
If you were to check out local driveways and parks in your neighborhood, chances are you won’t see as many kids playing sports (including basketball) as you once did. Instead of being outside or at the rec center using their imagination to create moves and work on developing their game, young players are now scheduled to participate in multiple practices a week, plus games. While this is all well and good from a get out and be active standpoint, kids are being guided like robots, constantly being told where to go and what to do. Basketball on the playground allowed big men to learn how to dribble and experiment with a variety of athletic moves, without fear of coaches yelling at them to give the ball up to a guard. It allowed undersized players to figure out how to battle against bigger opponents in the paint. It allowed kids to develop versatile bases of athleticism and creativity instead of playing inside a box. With the high volume of scheduled practices, workouts and game play, it leaves very little time, if any, for players to develop new skills on their own time.
Some teams have been known to practice three or four times a week for two hours a night, then jump into a weekend tournament for five or more games in the span of two or three days. Throw into account that while the majority of the AAU/Club schedule takes place from April through July, there are still a large number of programs that run all 12 months of the year. This leaves young players little to no time to develop interests in other activities or hobbies, increasing their risk of physical and mental burnout from basketball. Do we really want to chase kids away from the sport before we ever have any idea of their true potential?
Let’s dive into some of my specific issues with many young-aged AAU/Club teams. Often the coaches of these teams are forcing their players to play zone defense. Sure, this may be the most effective defensive tactic in that very moment, but at what cost? Kids are not being taught proper defensive principals, and because their opponents are incapable of making cross-court swing passes or long-range shots, players tend to get lazy, relying more on opponents inability than actually trying to play sound defense.
“A zone defense, it doesn’t hold kids accountable for playing defense. They just kinda have to stand there and don’t guard anybody, basically,” Don Showalter, Director of Coach Development for USA Basketball, told STACK. “If you play zone defense as a young player, that tells us the coach is only concerned with winning. Because generally, there are going to be one or two bigger players in that age group who can dominate if they just stand by the basket. They don’t learn the footwork needed to go outside of that. We really emphasize playing man-to-man up until 7th grade, then mix in some zone. The international guidelines are a little more stringent than ours in the United States. They don’t let their kids play any zone until 14. I think there’s a lot said for that.”
When one youth team deploys a zone defense, the other is forced to adapt. For any basketball enthusiast, it is well known that the best way to beat a half court zone defense is to not allow it to be set up by beating defenders down the court. For younger players, this often turns into a track meet in which coaches lean heavily on their quickest and best ball handler to get down court and to the hoop. This is great for the one or two players who possess such talent, but for the others who don’t have the foot speed or the dribbling skills, they tend to get left in the dust. Another problem that comes from this strategy is that the track meet method does very little to develop any sense of half court skill or movement, which is vital for when players get older and the competition is bigger, stronger and smarter.
Another cause for concern when addressing the development of young players on the AAU/Club circuit is the fact that many games incorporate the 3-point line as well as 10-foot hoops. Please understand that while it is great that your child wants to be the next Steph Curry or Maya Moore, young kids often lack the requisite strength required to shoot a 3-pointer with proper form. Unless they’re an outlier, they also probably can’t finish a lay-up on a 10-foot hoop with proper form. Why would we ask kids who are 12 years old or younger to shoot on the same hoop that NBA players do, or from a distance that up until a few years ago, many professional players struggled to shoot from?
Some coaches and parents seemingly have forgotten why kids tend to fall in love with sports in the first place. While youth sports were once seen as an enjoyable, leisurely pastime, they’ve become more and more cutthroat at the expense of the development and long-term happiness of our youth. How can coaches and parents help counteract this? One way involves introducing more of the five criteria of play into scheduled activities like practice. Can the kids self-select and self-direct more of what they’re doing? Or is there a way to foster a grander sense of imagination and reduce their fear of failure? Youth sports aren’t going to change overnight, but there are steps we can take to get them moving back in the right direction.
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