Youth Basketball in America: Problems & How to FIX the system

When the late, GREAT, Kobe Bryant spoke, people listened. Five NBA Championships and a host of other accolades gives you that credibility. Yet, when the future hall of famer criticized AAU basketball in America and the lack of youth basketball development in our country in 2016, few listened. Kobe pointed the finger directly at AAU basketball for the decline in skill in America and the increase of European players in the NBA.

I wrote a blog on the problems with the current system and what needs to be changed with the youth basketball development system in America shortly after Bryant’s comments. Sadly, nearly five years later, little has changed. Actually, the increase of “Exposure Camps”, scouting services, and Instagram trainers with HUGE agendas and little knowledge of the game have muddied the American youth basketball waters even more. I’m going to review what I said then in this post and add my thoughts since.

Here were Bryant’s comments back in 2016. “AAU basketball,” Bryant said. “Horrible, terrible AAU basketball. It’s stupid. It doesn’t teach our kids how to play the game at all so you wind up having players that are big and they bring it up and they do all this fancy crap and they don’t know how to post. They don’t know the fundamentals of the game. It’s stupid.”

Kobe’s words were blunt. That’s how he was, as we saw throughout his career. We appreciated that about him. He spit facts. He was not afraid to say exactly what was on his mind. I won’t go as far as to say AAU is stupid or that it’s all terrible basketball. This is not meant to be an inditement on all AAU basketball. There are many programs doing it the RIGHT way, who are helping kids improve and reach their goals. It is meant to be a close look at the system as a whole, and how we can adjust it to better serve players and their development.

So, first let’s look at the current problems.

“Too many games, not enough practice!” – LUDA

I think that’s how the song went, or something like that. You’ve probably heard the saying, “It takes 10,000 hours of practice to become an expert at anything. Here lies the biggest problem with the current AAU basketball system: Practice to play ratio. Skill development and practice should be to games 9 to 1 at the youth level.

Yet, in youth basketball in America that ratio is backwards. In what other area of life do people practice just one time per week and then perform 4-5x per that amount. This DOESN’T happen anywhere else, until mastery is reached. I often use the analogy of a pianist. A pianist wouldn’t practice once a week for 90 minutes then have four to five performances. HUNDREDS of hours of honing their craft go into the preparation for one performance.

With that lack of practice, our players are losing the ability to prepare and becoming bored with practice. What it takes to be great is consistent hard work, sacrifice and preparation, yet our kids are being taught from a young age that one practice per week is normal. In those limited practices, many coaches focus on offensive strategy and what to do to help the team win, with little to no emphasis on skill development.

That’s not to criticize youth basketball coaches. Many of them are volunteer coaches, just trying to do their best to help. They feel the pressure to win too and it’s easy to lose perspective. Winning should be valued, but not at the expense of improving players, especially at a young age.

Loss of reps

For a player practicing 1-2x per week in their AAU basketball program and playing 3-5 games per weekend, it may seem that they would be getting significant reps, but in reality, they are getting very few purposeful reps. In a 90-minute practice, maybe 30 minutes will be dedicated to fundamentals and getting shots up. In AAU settings, the game warmup is very short, often times only 3-5 minutes, and then if the player is a good player, they might get 6-10 shots per game.

With many programs not having a good offensive system in place many of the shots players do get will be predicated on creating their own shot, making it even more unlikely that a majority of players are getting quality game reps. This is especially true for players who aren’t getting an abundance of playing time. How many purposeful, game-speed reps are the 8th, 9th, and 10th man on the team getting? Yes, playing against better players will help you improve, but the fundamentals and skills need to be their first.

How many purposeful reps could those kids be getting in the two hours spent traveling to games, two hours of games for the day, two hours of waiting in between games, plus time & money spent in hotel, if they instead dedicated more time to intense, game-driven skill-development. A LOT!!

Disincentives winning and players are losing competitive edge

As a kid and still today, I want to win at all costs, sometimes to a fault. This was built outdoors playing informal basketball, trying to stay on the court. We’ll touch more on the importance of informal play later, but I simply do not see the same burning desire to win in a majority of kids I coach and work with today. Part of this is that more is going on. Kids have more distractions. But, a major part of this is no doubt the fact that when you play 50,60,70 games per summer, there is always the next game to play. There is no longer time in between to mull over a loss and inspire work. With so many games, there is always the next game, and I believe this is eliminating some of the competitiveness in kids.

Clearly, youth sports are not all about winning, but there is something to be said for being a competitor. The desire to win has fueled many great players to work hard and has propelled many athletes to success outside of athletics. I believe the sheer volume of games kids play today is eliminating some of that edge.

Wearing/Burning out players

Nearly all studies on early specialization point to the fact that early specialization of any sport in young athletes will have a negative impact on development. Athletes who specialize early are MORE likely to face overuse injuries, are MORE likely to experience burnout and quit, and are LESS likely to receive a college scholarship and LESS likely to play professionally. A 2013 American Medical Society for Sports Medicine survey found that 88% of college athletes surveyed participated in more than one sport as a child!! That’s about all you need to know! This topic calls for a whole separate blog, but bottom line, excessive AAU with year-round games for youth basketball players, promotes early specialization and is detrimental for a youth athlete’s growth.

Loss of values learned from pick-up basketball & informal play

As a young kid, I remember not being able to play with older cousins at the park or my dad at work and church league pick-up games. I remember watching form the sideline, longing for the chance to be old enough to prove myself. I also remember the confidence gained from the first time they are down a man and let you play, and you get your first bucket. Today’s kids don’t have that. Informal basketball games among children are in sharp decline. Many players who grow up playing AAU today rarely ever play games where referees/coaches/fans aren’t present.

Without this informal environment, players:

  • Don’t learn to earn their spot
  • Don’t learn to adapt
  • Don’t learn to do things necessary to get on and stay on the court
  • Don’t learn to negotiate, to interact, and to handle themselves in stressful situations with no parent or coach present to save them.
  • Don’t ever play the game for the sole purpose of COMPETING. There are always outside factors/drivers.

Training for Instagram videos rather than ACTUAL development for the ACTUAL Game

Though this was a budding trend five years ago, I did not write on this then. Now, five years later, it’s hard to believe some of the things you can see online that gets passed as basketball training. See Damian Lillard’s video mocking IG basketball trainers for an idea of what I am talking about.

Basketball training should be about the game of basketball

Players need to get GREAT at what they need to do to get on the floor. They should also attack their weaknesses. In today’s game, almost ALL players need to be able to shoot, so training should involve quality shooting instruction and reps. Far too often players pay for a workout and might only take 30-50 shots the entire workouts. Too much time is spent on moves that the player will not do in a game.

Good trainers are hard to come by. If you’re going to seek one out, do your due diligence, and get one that actually knows how to develop you or your athlete.

How to fix it:

A paradigm shift toward fewer games and more skill-driven development needs to occur. Through high school years, skill development should be to games 9 to 1. This is virtually impossible to achieve if players are playing games year-round. I’m not saying to not play AAU.

I have coached it, and I support and even encourage our players to play! I am saying that you need to limit the number of tournaments you play, you need a dedicated off-season, and you need to dedicate more time and money toward purposeful skill development, rather than just games.

This is difficult in many situations, as a majority of coaches, myself included will urge players to be ALL IN. As a youth basketball parent, search for a program that will emphasizes improvement and skill development, not just the program with the most recognition or former players who are now in the NBA.

Rather than playing 12-14 tournaments in a summer, find one that will play 6-8, and invest more time toward practice

Take the thousands of dollars saved from less traveling, hotels, and eating on the go, and invest in purposeful skill development or a good strength coach. This is especially important for those who aren’t stars. For a 9th or 10th man on the team, how many reps is that kid getting a weekend. 2-3 shots per game, maybe? Now, how much work could that player get achieved with all that wasted time?

Games are important, do not get me wrong, but don’t let the current system hide the fact that preparation is key!! Currently, our youth players are learning a system that doesn’t value preparation.

Along with fewer games, we need better educated youth basketball coaches. For this to occur, more education opportunities need to be available for youth coaches, even those doing it simply to coach their son’s team. Consistent education and curriculum for youth coaches, along with more resources for youth coaches, would provide tools necessary to improve skill development in athletes at young ages. Better coaching will lead to more fundamentally sound players at young ages.

Lastly, youth basketball parents, it’s on you. When picking AAU programs, trainers, and anyone who will spend significant time with your basketball player, find someone you can trust, you believe in, and is in it for the right reasons. Put your child in a situation where player development and personal improvement is valued over wins and “exposure”.

There is no such thing as exposure in middle school. At least not the kind of exposure that matters. If you are good, they will find you. Choose teams that fit your child’s need. Paying hundreds of dollars for them to ride the bench on a team they are not ready for, just so you can say your son plays on the top (insert program name here) team is not going to serve their development.

And, once you find someone you trust, allow him or her to do their job! Constantly yelling at your child from the sideline is detrimental the child’s growth as a basketball player and is hindering that coach’s ability to teach.

While on the court, players should be focused on one voice, and that is the voice of their head coach. Once in the car, or home, tell your child you love them and are their biggest fan and discuss what you saw, if you see fit. Discuss strengths and weaknesses in a calm manner, behind closed doors. Publicly berating your child during a game, or outwardly criticizing their coach is good for NO ONE and sucks the fun out of the game.

I’ll finish with the rest of Kobe’s thoughts

“When you have limitations and you understand your limitations and you stay within yourself, you can be great,”

Kobe Bryant said.

“You know what you can do and what you can’t do. In America, it’s a big problem for us because we’re not teaching players how to play all-around basketball. That’s why you have Pau and Marc [Gasol], and that’s the reason why 90 percent of the Spurs’ roster is European players, because they have more skill.”

“Teach players the game at an early age and stop treating them like cash cows for everyone to profit off of,” he said. “That’s how you do that. You have to teach them the game. Give them instruction.”

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