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When Competition in Youth Sports Hurts Long-Term Development

As I was scrolling through my podcasts the other night, I ran across one that focused on competition as a pitfall to the talent development process. I dove into the podcast with an open mind and found the perspective interesting & reflective. There were some parts I agreed with and some I understood, but agreed to disagree. I decided to write my own short piece on the topic.

One of the things mentioned in the podcast was the idea that highly competitive environments promote behavior changes from coaches. They cause coaches to shift to a restrictive, tactical approach that will often limit a player’s options in hopes of eliminating mistakes and winning more games. You see this all the time across all levels- coaches tell players things they can’t do or tactically design strategies that will maximize their team’s win total. In doing so, a coach often feeds their own ego with the belief that their team is “well coached” due to a strategy they implemented to get their team a win. Is a team only “well coached” if they follow a set of rules and patterns? Or if they win the majority of their games? At younger levels, will those same strategies lead to the same results in the future? Or will a team and a group of players that only know how to follow commands or is constrained under a series of rules made by an adult fall short over time in reaching their true capabilities? I would argue the latter.

When we see coaches using the “joystick” approach (meaning they control all movements of each player like a video game) at young levels to win games, many times the argument is that “we have to start teaching kids to win and be competitive”. Is teaching winning in this manner at young ages more important than developing skills, confidence, and the ability to identify & solve problems on their own? The argument of teaching players to win could be made at a certain age, but I think more and more people are taking a win at all costs approach way too early in a child’s athletic career.

I don’t have it nailed down to a science, but when I coach youth sports, I would lean more toward the side of development, which often times ends up leading to more wins as a season progresses anyway. I coach 8th grade basketball in the winter and my assistant and I have always believed in each kid playing in every half, to limit set plays, and to call timeouts only when necessary. We encourage the kids to communicate and solve their own problems at practice & put every kid in different roles to hopefully advance their skill set and understanding of the game. Are we always perfect in our quest? No, we fall short sometimes, but for the most part our teams take more ownership in themselves by the end of the year & they usually need us less & less as the season goes on. We always have players run parts of or whole practices by the end of the year. We are only there to solve disputes or help guide a drill if need be. To me, that’s a well-coached team- when your players DON’T need you and don’t rely on you to give them all the answers and solve all their problems, but have learned to do these things on their own.

Another point brought up during the podcast was the idea of playing time. This is another thing that poses an interesting debate. Should kids be on a team and not play in youth sports? On one side, some would argue that if they don’t play they will become more motivated to advance their skills and get better. The other side, however is that they become unmotivated and quit the sport. To me, especially at young ages, it’s important to try and develop as many players who enjoy the game and the process of improving as possible. You never know what’s going to happen as kids get older as it pertains to physical maturation, new interests, or injuries. It’s not to say that I believe that equal playing time should be given to every kid on every team, but I absolutely do believe that practice opportunities should be equal at young ages, and I certainly don’t believe in completely cutting out a kid’s game opportunities at the youth level, which I so frequently see. 

Without extending this article too long, ultimately, I think at times the overly-competitive nature of youth sports has promoted a dangerous “win at all costs” mentality from parents and coaches stemming from the need to validate their own egos. It’s imperative at the youth levels that players understand the value of competition but it’s not at the expense of environments where they have room to be creative, solve problems, and DEVELOP. It doesn’t mean that every kid gets a trophy, it doesn’t mean that we just roll the ball out and let kids do whatever they want, and it doesn’t mean that every youth team consists of equal playing time, but it does mean that coaches and parents become more aware the dangerous win at all costs mentality & understand the importance of what it means to foster true long-term development.

Thanks for reading!

Reflections from an Unforgettable Journey

After four years coaching the class of 2018 WI Shooters AAU basketball team, our journey as a group came to an end last weekend. A flurry of emotions came through me as I addressed the group as a whole for the last time. Special kids, special parents, and a lot of memories that will never be replaced. In the days that followed, I have reflected a great deal on all the things we were able to experience. The road wasn’t always smooth, but even through the rocky points, I can say with certainty that we all grew. We became better individually as well as collectively. From a personal standpoint, I learned a great deal about the developmental process, coaching, players, parents, and about myself as an individual. Naturally, I wrote some of it down and have decided to share it here. I hope you can find something that resonates with you in my reflections.

Not everyone is going to buy into what you’re doing as a leader; keep sharing your message and loving people anyway. As a coach, I had parents who disapproved of what I did and the decisions I made within our team- sometimes they made it personal, sometimes they just strongly disagreed with philosophy, but I always did my best to never let it affect how I shared my message and how I loved and coached their kid. It wasn’t always easy, but I always tried to stay true to myself and give people the love and respect they deserved regardless if someone disagreed or agreed with what I was doing.

Surround yourself with great people. We hear it all the time- but it’s absolutely true. I was incredibly fortunate to have directors, fellow coaches, and friends whom I could trust. Having a strong support system can keep belief when there is doubt and hold people together in times of uncertainty. Being surrounded by great people also makes us stronger- we benefit by having their strengths and abilities to add to or supplement what we’re already doing! Whether it’s an idea, a nod of approval, or something they’re seeing that we’re not, being surrounded by great people will always elevate us as individuals in any endeavor in our lives.

Confidence fluctuates. That makes us human. There were times I went into a game with a bad feeling, there were other times I was just really nervous about a particular game. I used to get the same feelings as a player. THIS IS NORMAL. I used to think that there was something wrong with me if I didn’t feel confident all the time. Social media always tells us that, “Preparation leads to confidence.” So I’ve always taken that as “if I feel nervous, I’m obviously not prepared”, but I’ve learned that’s not the truth. We are all human beings and we all naturally go through ebbs and flows with how confident we feel in the moment. Sometimes we are going to be nervous and uptight no matter how much we prepare or how hard we’ve worked. I can remember my first ever speaking engagement to 200 corporate executives who flew in for a conference from across the country. I prepared for months. I gave the speech to a wall over well over 100 times. When the day came to give the speech- I was as nervous as you could possibly imagine. I played out everything that could go wrong, my palms were sweaty, heart was racing, and my arms were shaking grabbing the microphone- what did I do to combat this? Absolutely nothing. I just went on stage and started the speech and by the time I was two minutes in- the nerves were gone and I felt a wave of extreme confidence. No matter how much you prepare, your confidence will fluctuate- that’s completely normal. The solution isn’t to lie to yourself or fight that emotion- the solution is do nothing. Just keep going. Stay in the game. Those nerves will be gone before you know it!

Building great relationships gives you room to make mistakes as a leader. I messed up a lot as a coach and I probably will mess up more times in the future. Like players and officials, coaches are imperfect too. You hope that you make all the right decisions and press all the right buttons- but the truth is often times you don’t. When you have built relationships and when your players know you care and love them unconditionally, it comes back to you as a coach. When you’re off as a coach or when you don’t have your best performance, your players will still trust you and do their best for you, which is one of the strongest testaments to a coach. It all starts with the relationships you foster with your players. When you treat your players with love and respect and care for them as people, not just players, they know, and trust me- they will do just about anything in return to show that they love you right back- even on your worst days.

Mastering self-awareness. How well do we know ourselves? What are the driving forces behind our actions? In order to improve at anything in our lives, it’s important to unbiasedly observe and be completely transparent with ourselves. The more we are aware of our own tendencies, actions, and motivations (good & bad), the more likely we are to respond intentionally and conscientiously to an event or circumstance.

Emotional Intelligence. How well do we understand the people around us? As a coach, parent, teacher, manager, or anyone in a leadership position, self-awareness coupled with emotional intelligence is crucial. Different situations and different people call for different tactics. For me, I always try to have a handle on my players when they walk into practice. Are they upbeat and talkative? What does their body language look like? Are they going to need a “kick in the butt” type of a message or a little extra love and support that day? When we are in touch with and can relate to those in which we lead, we are more likely to deliver beneficial instruction and feedback.

Be patiently impatient. I heard this the other day listening to a podcast and really liked it. It’s another way of saying “trust the process”, but it means that while we trust that the end result will work out the way it’s supposed to- each and every day we are still immersing ourselves in the actions it takes to reach our desired destination. I’m a big believer that things play out the way they are supposed to- but too many times it’s taken as “just be patient and everything will work out”- that’s only true to a point. While we’re waiting and being patient, we better be controlling the things we can or we will just be waiting on a dream or a goal that will never come to fruition.

Enjoy the ride. Such a cliche’ statement, but couldn’t be more true. I feel badly for parents who are constantly caught up in social media, comparing their kid to other kids, questioning every decision a coach makes, or feeling the need to lecture their kid after EVERY game on what he or she did wrong. Not only does it make the parents’ life miserable and stressful, it adds a ton of external pressure to their kid. As hard as it may be, let kids have joy in playing the game and competing. If they really love it- they’ll put extra work into it. When they really have a problem (not just being a little upset after a bad game)- they will come to you. Until then, support your kid, find joy in watching them play, and cheer for their teammates’ success just as much as your own kid. Enjoy the ride, because it will be over before you know it.

Thank you for reading!

Random Basketball Thoughts

Position-less basketball is a term being used more frequently. I have always been a believer that the more skills a player has, the better. The two biggest guys that I have coached in the past few years (6’8”) both received Division 1 scholarship opportunities not purely because of size, but because they both have the ability to not only score inside, but also have the ability to pass, shoot, and make plays off the bounce. Regardless of size, we should be teaching and developing all players to handle, pass, shoot, post, and guard both post and perimeter. The more versatility a player has, the more options we have amongst our teams as a coach. It takes more patience to develop and teach this way- but it’s certainly worth it in the end.

Film is an incredible teacher. One thing that really caught my attention this summer was the disconnect that there often is between what a coach sees a player doing and what the player thinks they are doing. Many times a player will nod their head, “yes” when we ask if they understand the coaching we are giving them, but I’m not sure how many truly can see and visual what’s going on or what we may be talking about as a coach. Giving players visual understanding of what you’re seeing as a coach can help build trust and connection, as well as enhance your ability to relay messages. The unawareness isn’t just with players either, for coaches, often times we think we are seeing one thing, but another thing is actually happening. Film is a great way to build self-awareness within all members of your team.

Defense isn’t just heart. I get why coaches (myself included) talk to their players about defense being “all heart”- limited athletic ability can be somewhat neutralized by putting forth maximum effort. However, in saying that, to truly be an elite defender you better be able to move laterally, anticipate, and understand team principles. Defensive players certainly can make their mark by outworking people, but to truly excel takes much more than just heart.

An underrated offensive skill is the ability to get open. In watching a lot of games, I see teams who apply great defensive pressure which often leads to turnovers and easy baskets. Give the defense some of the credit, but I also see teams and players who don’t understand timing of their cuts, how to use their feet, their body, or a screen to get themselves open. Too many times offensive teams settle for catching further away from the basket and playing into the defensive team’s hands.

Transition basketball. A lot of teams want to play transition basketball, but not many players want to sprint the floor every possession and pass the basketball ahead every opportunity they get. Playing fast is fun, but in order to play fast, offensive teams need to SPRINT the floor and they have to be willing to throw the ball ahead to an open teammate with as little dribbles as possible. Without this mentality, your transition game will likely be average or below.

I think players need to be able to pass with both one hand and two hands. I think many will disagree with me on this, but being able to pass with one hand off the dribble is quicker & can allow more angles to throw a pass. It’s certainly a skill that needs to be practiced to be effective, but I think it’s a skill that again can give players more options in certain situations.

Functional movement needs to be focused on just as much as any skill or offensive and defensive philosophy. I am still working on getting better in this area myself and I know many coaches have a limited amount of time, but players can’t reach their full potential on the basketball court without taking care of, building, and maintaining their bodies off the court. Poor movement mechanics and dysfunctional strength can greatly inhibit a player’s ability to perform at their best & in many cases over time will catch up to a player resulting in an injury. It’s okay to have light practices, it’s alright to give players days off or an extra day of recovery after an injury, and it’s crucial that coaches learn basic movement fundamentals or hire someone who can help your team with them! I’ve learned that the best player is an available player.

Commonly Accepted Narratives: Multi-Sport Athletes

I had a professor in college who said you can almost always answer any question with “it depends”; the more and more I come across conversations on anything- that’s usually what my conclusion ends up being. Are there some statements that I believe to be true more often than not? Yes, but I’m also not numb to the fact that in many situations, the answer isn’t cut and dry and might simply be dependent on a person’s individual situation. Everyone has a different perspective and there isn’t anyone on this planet with all the answers. My goal in writing these articles is to offer a perspective that is different than the commonly accepted narrative; it’s not always necessarily my opinion, the writing isn’t designed to push anyone in a certain direction, but to help invoke critical thinking.

If kids want to play multiple sports at any age, they should. At young ages in particular, I think it’s very healthy for kids to try numerous sports and figure out what they enjoy the most. Playing multiple sports helps increase motor development/ coordination at young ages. Among other benefits that I believe to be true are less emotional burnout, and exposure to different roles. I played basketball year-round in high school and I loved every single second of it. I wouldn’t have traded it for anything. I also ran cross country two years in high school after a good friend convinced me to, and I also have zero regret on that; I had a great experience. Generally speaking, I would lean towards being an advocate for multiple-sports (absolutely before high school) and I think there are positive benefits, but I also believe, like with anything, it’s not always cut and dry. I think this underlying, commonly accepted narrative that all kids should automatically play multiple sports has more to it. If kids don’t want to play multiple sports, should they have to? Who’s to say it’s the best thing for every kid?

According to a recent NCAA study on specialization, 68 percent of Division I male soccer players and 66 percent of tennis players specialized by the age of 12. 32 percent of baseball players, 33 percent of football players and 49 percent of basketball players said they were specializing at the same age. 67 percent of Division 2 soccer players and 59 percent of Division 3 soccer were also specializing by age 12. For females, the study showed similar numbers across the same sports, with a slightly higher specialization number than men. The one sport where there was a big difference was in gymnastics. 87 percent of female Division I, II and III gymnasts said they were specializing by the age of 12.

Every year after the NFL Draft, the high amount of 1st round draft prospects that were multiple-sport athletes is publicized all over social media. Not pointed out, however, is data from other sports. If we are going to talk about professional athletes (which I’m not saying everyone is going to become or that should even be 99% of people’s goal), would gymnastics have the same numbers? Soccer? Basketball? Tennis? You can take almost any data and skew it in the direction you want. There are very few club/ year-round options for football, so it’s pretty easy to point out that data and use it to push kids toward multiple sports.

The question to ask is, why are kids specializing? There are many potential theories to this, but forthcoming are some scenarios to consider.

One of the top basketball players in the state of Wisconsin committed to a Division 1 school (he’s not a freak athlete and he’s under 6’0’ tall) said this about specialization, “This isn’t a hobby for me. There is this small town mindset of overvaluing the 3 sport athlete who is good at all 3 instead of great at one.” As I stated before, the goal of high school athletics for most shouldn’t be to go pro and such a small amount of kids play collegiately, that obtaining the opportunity to play at any level in college is going to be a difficult quest. Does that mean that we should automatically tell a player that they should then participate in multiple sports? The part of this situation that I can respect and understand is that the game of basketball is his deepest passion. He found something he loves and he’s pursuing it. Numerous adults are constantly preaching to “find something you love to do everyday” or to “follow your passion and go all-in on it”. Every coach tells their kids that they should have big dreams and strive to be their best- isn’t that what this young man has done? Is he in the wrong because he decided not to play multiple sports? Are the people in his life wrong for supporting his dream in the game of basketball? Should they have forced him to play more sports?

The other side of the argument would be, would this athlete be significantly worse off in basketball if he played another sport? I don’t think so. Some would say that he’d even be better at basketball if he played other sports. How do we know that? How do we just automatically accept that notion? Is playing shortstop for his baseball team really going to make him a better shooter in basketball? That’s a really hard argument to make in my opinion.

This past winter I had a young man on my basketball team who played soccer during basketball season. Soccer is this kids’ favorite sport (his words) but does enjoy basketball and is good at it. There were about 3-4 instances (full tournaments and practices) during the season where he missed because of his traveling soccer schedule. As a team, we had policies in place for any unexcused absences. Him, myself, and my assistant coach had an open conversation about it before the season started. The player would serve the consequences for any misses outside of the allotted number- no further punishment would be made outside of the team policy. Further punishment would have potentially made this young kid have to decide whether he wanted to play basketball or choose soccer; we didn’t want him to have to make that decision.

However, was it fair to the other players who were at all practices that this kid missed practices for a sport that is technically considered “out of season”? A part of me questions who determines what is in-season. Just because the high school plays at a certain time of the year, does that automatically mean that’s the sport that’s in-season? Virtually every sport has become year-round in the activities that they offer.

Hypothetically speaking, if he would’ve gotten injured playing the other sport that would’ve had a very negative effect on our team seeing that he was one of our best players. As a basketball coach, should I have put my foot down and told him that basketball will always have to come first until the season is done? Should I have asked him to give up club soccer? The same situation has occurred multiple times in teams that I have coached in youth, high school, as well as club seasons. For me, I’d rather have the athlete playing my sport as a secondary sport than having them quit anything they enjoy- especially before high school. Some coaches, however, think it is a slap in the face to the other kids on the team and to them if a player participates in numerous other activities for another sport during “their season”. Can you blame those coaches? Shouldn’t you want full commitment from every team member- isn’t that something we always preach to our kids? If that’s the case, aren’t we putting that kid in a decision where they have to pick one sport over another?

A couple other scenarios to think about:

You’re a third stringer in one sport and a top player in another sport. You don’t feel valued in the sport you’re a third stringer in or you don’t enjoy the sport for whatever reason. On top of that, consider the fact that there were opportunities in the other sport that you were better at during the season where you were competing as a third stringer. Would you turn down other opportunities in the sport you were good at to play third string in another sport? Some might say, “Well they aren’t going pro anyway, they should embrace just being a good teammate.” On the flip side, what about the message we send to kids about “being a competitor”? Could that be considered settling? Again, I don’t know the right answer here, I just believe that there are a lot of mixed messages that we send to young people.

As I mentioned previously, among the benefits talked about frequently in playing multiple sports is a new role within a team and a different coach giving a young person a different message. Isn’t it possible that a kid can get this same benefit from playing the same sport within a different team? They could have a different coach with a different style, they could have a new role (either increased or decreased) as well.

Overall, the point I’m trying to make here is that there are many things to consider when it pertains to anything, which includes multiple sport athletes. I do believe there is benefit- especially before kids get to high school- they should be trying multiple things and figuring out what they enjoy. I think as time continues, however, there is room and reason for an expanded conversation on an individual’s situation. It’s not always cut and dry, and in many cases, we can always come back to “it depends”.

Commonly Accepted Narratives: AAU Basketball

There are many commonly accepted narratives regarding AAU basketball. From parents, players, coaches, former players, or anyone else involved in the game, there is usually a strong opinion regarding AAU. Among those narratives are people who believe AAU is “good” and those believe AAU is flat out killing the game. I see perspective from both sides, but I definitely believe that a large majority of people are outspoken critics before they take a real look at the whole picture. This article isn’t meant to convince you one way or the other on AAU, but to provoke critical thinking and hopefully shed light that, as with anything, there are multiple viewpoints and multiple sides to each story.

It seems everyone has an opinion on if AAU basketball or high school basketball is “better”. Do we really have to decide which one is better? Can’t we all work together to try to make both of them as good as possible? As with anything, there is really good AAU basketball, there is really good high school basketball, and there is really bad of both. I have seen some terrific high school coaches, but I’ve seen plenty of really poor ones as well. On the AAU circuit, I have seen some coaches who do a tremendous job of interacting with players and making in-game adjustments and I have seen some where I question if they’ve ever had any connection to the game of basketball in their entire life. There is good and bad in both environments- generally speaking to say that one environment is better than the other or all high school coaches are good and all AAU coaches are bad (or vice versa) is absolutely ridiculous. Each individual situation needs to be looked at. I’m sick and tired of both sides constantly criticizing the other- each side could use a drop in their own egos and remember why they coach and who they are coaching for. It has nothing to do with high school and AAU- it has everything to do with the quality of situation for both.

One thing I read a decent amount is that the developmental systems overseas are developing more fundamentally sound, skilled players than we are in the United States. Within those articles people criticize the lack of fundamental teaching in AAU, and how AAU is the supposed reason why the game in the US has “dwindled” (I don’t see it that way- IMO the game has advanced in many ways). There is now an influx of “fundamentally sound” international players playing in the NBA due to the “focus on fundamentals” in Europe. To that point, have people never seen Kevin Durant, Anthony Davis, Karl-Anthony Towns, LaMarcus Aldridge, Paul Millsap, Al Horford (to name a few) play? All those guys are 6’9 and above- I would say each is incredibly skilled and pretty fundamentally sound. Was that just pure luck that each of them developed in the American developmental system and played AAU? What about guys like LeBron James, James Harden, Kawhi Leonard, and Paul George? You could argue that all the guys I listed are just elite athletes, but you and I both know it takes a little more than just being an elite athlete to play at the level they’re playing at. On top of it all, if that’s the argument what would the narrative be on guys like Steph Curry, Kyrie Irving, or CJ McCollum? Furthermore, and lastly, kids are WAY further advanced today in basic fundamentals than I ever was at the same age.

Generally speaking, we take for granted how good and how special some of the people we develop through our system are and end up putting such an extreme emphasis on the select international players who come over and make an impact in the NBA. Are there more international players than ever? Yes. Are some of them very good players? No doubt. The game has also grown in popularity across the world, and it will continue to as more foreign players make it to the NBA. More popularity equals more numbers, more ignition; a further drive to become better at the game in other parts of the world. It’s also important to realize that more US coaches are traveling across the country teaching the game and helping expand it on an international level than ever before. To say that our system as a whole is failing and that AAU is the reason that international programs are catching up is ridiculous. The world is catching up, and it will continue to, but I’d say the US is still producing some pretty quality “fundamentally sound” talent themselves, and not to mention remaining dominant at all levels across the world in international play.

AAU used to be reserved for only “elite” basketball players. There’d be ten teams maximum per age level across a state such as Wisconsin, so you had to be among the better players in the state to land on a team. It has certainly grown and now my guess is there is probably closer to 60-80 teams per age level in WI. Due to what AAU was formerly known as (elite), some parents and kids have adopted this mindset that because they play AAU, they are automatically good. That’s not the case. There are numerous kids playing AAU that aren’t among the top ten or even twenty in their high school programs. Anyone can play on an AAU team now. The idea that some parents and kids have, that because they play on an “AAU” team they are an elite kid is a big part of the reason why AAU at times gets a bad rap with school programs. Not every AAU team is good and in some cases, they aren’t any better than a local school team. However, hasn’t the majority of our population agreed that kids should be playing multiple sports? I know players who were cut from their school teams who go play and practice with an AAU team. Isn’t that a positive thing? In some people’s eyes, AAU is watered down (which I do agree- I think there needs to be a separation in levels in the summer even more than already is), but some of those same people are the ones who are advocating that kids play as many sports as they can. For many, AAU gives kids a different opportunity, different role, and could supply them with a positive experience that may keep them playing the game, which is what is frequently believed are a few benefits of competing in multiple sports.

Many organizations and tournaments have started to create tournaments and platforms that require an invite for teams to compete in (I really like this). The idea is to get all of the best players and teams under one roof to mutually benefit players and college coaches. For players, you get the opportunity to play against high-level competition, and for college coaches, you can evaluate numerous kids at one time in a live-game setting, which can be more difficult to do at the high school level for various reasons. I have seen kids have their dreams come true because of the platform that AAU has given them. On the other side of the fence, there will be people who immediately point out the platform that AAU creates leads to flawed and unrealistic thinking from parents and players. Does that only come from the AAU platform itself or is that due to parents and players not having a clear view on what they are? Isn’t that a result of a bigger problem in our sports culture in this day and age or is that only tied to AAU basketball? I see people across multiple sports who have frequent problems with their role or how their high school careers ended because of a false sense of perception on what their abilities are. Maybe the AAU platform causes some of this, I can’t say for certain one way or the other, but my intuition tells me the unrealistic quest for a scholarship is a problem across all sports, not just because of AAU.

One of the writers in Wisconsin who covers high school basketball did a great article that outlined the small number of players who move on to NCAA Division 1 universities to play basketball from WI. In the comments section, a man wrote, “I wonder how much money AAU programs rake in from parents chasing those elusive scholarships?” First off, I get his point. Parents are often times the ones on the biggest quest to be validated through their kids scholarships. I also know there are some people who have made a business out of AAU basketball- no arguments there, but the number of people doing it for the right reasons for very little or no money, outweighs the bad. Most people who coach in AAU give up their weekends in the spring and summer and travel around to events to coach kids while receiving no compensation outside of basic expenses. The notion that all AAU is just a money-grab frustrates me and takes away from people who volunteer a ton of time to make a positive difference for kids. Again, are there people who may have ulterior motives? Yes. Are there people who rip people off? Yes, but there are also a large majority of people who do it for the right reasons. Not all AAU programs and coaches are out to take money, the ones who do have ruined the reputation for those who do it right.

To conclude, not all AAU is good, not all AAU is bad. Some critiques and points people make frequently probably have a certain degree of truth to it, but I also want to know what system doesn’t have flaws? What actions are being taken by those who are loud in their complaints to help clean those things up? I believe that certain criticisms often spoken are due to having a narrow scope of perspective and those same criticisms could be made with anything. As usual, there isn’t just a simple answer or fix to it all- there are many points to consider. I hope this article at least helped bring light to other sides of commonly accepted narratives.

Commonly Accepted Narratives: D3 & Fundamentals

I was having a conversation with a fellow coach this weekend while watching a high school AAU game. We were talking about things we teach and the quality/ level of players in today’s game. An older gentleman was listening to the conversation and made several interjections; I couldn’t help but respectfully disagree with almost everything he said. Our conversation was respectful and cordial, and I am more than aware that not everyone shares the same view points on things, but most of the view points he shared are things that I believe are misconstrued and misinterpreted. I have found that people read or discuss commonly accepted narratives and just run with them rather than actually analyzing and watching what is going on for themselves.

The other coach I was originally speaking was talking about what separates the levels of play in college basketball & how high of quality many D3 programs have. The man sitting next to us jumped in and said, “I’ve been doing scouting and recruiting for high school kids for 18 years. The difference between kids at the Division 3 level and the Division 1 level is heart and fundamentals. Ya know, none of these kids want to work on the basics, and none of them want to work hard so they end up playing D3 when they should’ve played D1.” First off, I’m not sure of this man’s background, but I’m not sure if he realized just how good numerous D3 players are and how high of quality many programs possess. Secondly, if you have read anything I’ve wrote before, you can imagine I wasn’t going to be able to let this “generational thing” pass. I respectfully disagreed with him. As I have wrote about before, kids’ work ethic is all based on perspective. I don’t have many problems with kids not working hard. Most of the kids I work with are motivated to get better and learn. Generation to generation there will always be people who are lazy or unmotivated- kids are not just all of a sudden drastically different than they have ever been.

Moving on, having played D3 basketball for four years and now coaching players that have played anywhere from D3 to D1, heart and fundamentals is not an accurate statement of what separates the two levels. In coaching, I have had gym rats who are highly skilled AND work their tails off AND have unmatched competitive spirit that have gone on to play D3. Some were undersized, others didn’t move well enough laterally or possess the overall athleticism to play at that level. A couple were athletic and had a solid skill-set but didn’t have one area where they REALLY excelled at. One or two just weren’t given the opportunity to play at a higher level, but I have no doubt they could have. From my own playing experiences, I played D3 basketball with and against some of the grittiest, most competitive, and highly skilled players that I have had the privilege to be around. In many cases, the top players who play at the Division 3 level possess similar skill sets and fundamentals as players at higher levels, but the separator at the Division 1 level is the athletic ability and size. On top of it all, very very few players are going to have the opportunity to play Division 1 basketball. In the classes of 2016 & 2017 in the WHOLE state of Wisconsin, only 20 players total over two years have been awarded Division 1 scholarships. You have to possess a trait that is pretty extraordinary to play at that level. The bottom line is that it’s a lot more than just “heart and fundamentals” to play at the Division 1 level and most of Division 3 is pretty damn good basketball, many players who play at that level have maximized their abilities. Not to mention, I think you have to have some “heart” to sacrifice 20+ hours a week in college when not receiving a dollar of scholarship money to play on a team for four years.

A popular narrative by many is that today’s game lacks fundamentals- the notion that kids don’t have foundational skills anymore. The older gentleman said that, “Kids shouldn’t be playing all these games, they should be in the gym working on their fundamentals.” You hear this all the time, and to a small extent, I agree with it, but for reasons other than “playing isn’t good”. I think there are too many organized 5 v 5 games, however, I also think the focus on fundamentals has gotten pushed too far and has caused an increase in low-context isolated practice with coaches controlling every movement. From talking with this gentleman, I had a pretty good idea what he was going to say, but I still asked him what he defined as fundamentals and the best way to work on them. I wanted to hear his solution to what he viewed as the problem. The gentleman said, “Kids need the basics. Shooting a lay-up off the proper foot, two-hand chest passes, screening & rolling, shooting a 15-foot jump shot. They just really need more drills and less games.” I replied by pointing him to the game we were watching (17-year old high school kids) that was in the high 70’s and featured great ball movement, spacing, and shooting. I asked if he really thought that the kids out here couldn’t shoot a traditional lay-up? How many times do you see players shoot an uncontested 45-degree angle off the proper foot from the half-court line? Do kids really need to be working on a 15-foot bank shot when many shoot 40%+ from the 3-point line? Outside of that, I have seen third graders who can do every single one of the things he mentioned to perfection; I couldn’t even walk and chew gum at the same time when I was in third grade. Players today are much more advanced than ever when it comes to a traditional, fundamental perspective.

The conversation continued and we respectfully agreed to disagree, but to me, the fundamentals of the game are continually evolving as the game is evolving. Players have to be able to use different finishes based on the defense, shoot from behind the 3-point line, pass from different angles, and MOST importantly they have to be able to read & see the game. The feel for the game comes from playing (I would love to see the playing shift more towards small-sided games at the younger ages). “Skill work” to me is a lot more than just dribbling, passing, and shooting. It’s greater than just the fundamental technique, it’s also the decision-making within each skill. Many of the kids I see regularly don’t lack fundamental technique, their processing of how to execute in a fast-paced, complex game environment is usually what needs the most work! You can’t develop a better feel for the game or advance your game a great deal by solely practicing isolated drills against cones and a chair.

Later in the week, I will post on another commonly accepted narrative that AAU is killing our game.

Lessons Learned from Frank Martin

I can remember when I first watched a game in which Frank Martin (now the head coach for South Carolina University) coached. At the time he was coaching the Kansas State Men’s Basketball team. He was intense, loud, and his facial expressions probably scared the heck out of the casual observer. I didn’t know much about him and I didn’t know what the players that played for him thought about playing for him. Unquestionably his team played hard, but if I had a guess at that time, my guess would’ve been that they played hard out of fear. I would’ve guessed that players likely feared Martin and the ramifications that would come if they didn’t meet his expectations. Through South Carolina’s incredible Final Four run, however, my opinion has shifted to a certain degree. Many players on his current team have expressed their strong, supportive feelings on him. I still don’t know Martin, and I would guess that there are some that would argue that he is still borderline crazy, but through numerous press conferences and heartfelt letters he wrote to the South Carolina fanbase, I appreciated the authenticity in his words. I decided to write this article summarizing some of the applicable leadership lessons and daily life reminders I took away in reflecting on those words. I hope you enjoy!

“Tough Love”
Frank Martin was asked if he subscribes to the theory or philosophy of “tough love”. His response was, “I don’t know what tough love is. People use that term all the time. Because if you’re not being honest with your players, if you’re not giving them passion, then there’s no love. That’s phoniness.”

For me, this hit a chord with many personal philosophies that I hold close to my heart in coaching. Always demand the absolute best from players. Have high standards and high expectations for them. If they aren’t meeting them or you think they are capable of more- tell them. They won’t always like you at the time and they won’t always want to hear what you are saying, but at the end of the day- they’ll respect honesty.

Now, with that being said, context is EXTREMELY important here. There is absolutely a right way to relay a message and a wrong one. Can you be honest while still being respectful? Do you have emotional intelligence to understand how a person is wired and what the best way to motivate them is? Are you able to be demanding without being demeaning? Are there solutions attached to your corrections & honesty or are you just putting on an act to give the impression of being a “tough coach”? I understand what the reporter was asking in regards to “tough love”- but I think Coach Martin hit it on the head in terms of how a leader shows “true love” to someone. For any leader, I think it should always be a goal that every person in which they lead knows they are cared for, but also know that their leader, coach, or teacher is right there with them helping them reach heights that they’ve never reached before. This can only be done through high standards, authentic passion, honesty, emotional intelligence, and an underlying value of love and respect.

Generational Talk
“You know what makes me sick to my stomach? When I hear grown people say that kids have changed. Kids don’t know anything about anything. We’ve changed as adults. We demand less of kids. We expect less of kids. We make their lives easier instead of preparing them for what life is truly about. We’re the ones that have changed.”

Before I dive into this, I want to be clear that I do think kids’ lives have changed. There is more technology available than ever to make our lives more convenient and social media continues to become more prevalent. That has changed a lot of things for everyone, however, not just kids (we could have this conversation in a different thread). I hear so frequently that kids aren’t wired the same as they used to be; that this younger generation is “soft”. I think before that just automatically becomes the accepted truth we as adults need to take a really hard look in the mirror first. What are we modeling to our kids? Are our behaviors in line with what we are preaching to our children? What’s our message to them after they come home from a really difficult practice and are upset with the coach? What are the standards we set forth in our homes? How would we like to be parented, coached, or taught by us? I think there are some things that could be debated in Martin’s quote, but the underlying message of what he’s saying is dead on. We so quickly want to point the finger and put labels on on our younger generation, but before we do so, it’s important to look back in the mirror at ourselves first.

The Journey
A reporter asked Martin what he told his team in the locker room after their Final Four defeat. His response was, “People keep score when you play games. 35, 36, 37 times a year and sometimes you win and sometimes you don’t. That score eventually goes away when you impact people by the masses the way these kids have. That makes you a winner as a human being and that’s what matters. When we get home and they realize what they’ve done in our community, their hearts will open with joy. The pain of losing this game will eventually go away.”

I love this. Obviously as a competitor, you want to win. Martin communicates, however, that most teams end their season with some losses or place somewhere outside of 1st. What matters is the journey- who did you become in the process? How did you impact others? What things are you able to look back on and feel proud? On any journey or experience, when you put forth your personal best effort, have unwavering enthusiasm, and positively impact the lives of others, regardless of results, you will be able to look back and be proud of what you did.

A Gut-Check on our Developmental System


I am going to forewarn you that there will parts of this article that could be a gut-check for you. Many of the things I talk about are things that I have fought with and have learned through my experiences. My primary reason for writing this stems from the fact that I am sick of seeing kids being bashed, while adults, coaches, trainers, and everyone else within the system take no accountability for their roles. Our kids aren’t broken but the system certainly is damaging them- and that system is led by parents, coaches, private trainers, and tournament directors. When I look on social media or talk to other coaches, the common theme in some shape or form is that kids are lazy, aren’t tough, selfish, or some other phrase along those lines. While that could be true in some instances, what’s never pointed out or analyzed is the actual root of these issues.

What are we Modeling?

I can’t help but laugh at some of the adults that are demanding that kids need to work harder. Some of those people are the same ones who have never left their own comfort zone. They’re probably some of the same people who are checking the clock at work and give half-ass effort throughout the day at their own jobs; they’re probably the same ones who haven’t went through a grueling workout themselves in years. Some of the coaches who sit with their hands in their pockets and start practice 15 minutes late and do the same boring drills every day to fill time are often the loudest in their complaints of kids.

I’m not at all saying that some kids don’t need a kick in the ass- I work with some that do- but before we have numerous adults jumping all over a generation of kids- lets make sure that we as adults are taking a hard look at ourselves in the mirror first. Modeling the behaviors in which we wish to see in other people is the strongest form of leadership. Actions speak- and you better believe that kids are watching our actions- and the words we speak are going to fall on deaf ears if the things we do each and every day don’t line up with the words we are speaking.

So before we complain, condemn, criticize, and wonder why we can’t get our kids to work hard- lets make sure we first check the mirror.

Analyzing the Training Load:

I know kids who practice five times a week and play five games on the weekend in one sport. They then proceed to practice two to three more times per week in another sport and engage in additional training on the side for each. I know the expression is, “They’re kids- they can handle it.” In most cases, this is true.. until it’s not. At some point, if it is not managed correctly, that physical stress is going to lead to injury.

What’s the solution? For coaches, it’s getting rid of the BS drills and creating better, more efficient practice designs. For parents, it’s putting away this idea of “more is always better” and killing your kids’ enthusiasm by signing them up for every activity possible. Let me explain.

I’ve never coached a team that practices more than 2-3x per week at 90 minute clips (even 90 minutes is too long sometimes IMO). Players who have the desire for more will engage in their own self-directed workouts, strength and conditioning sessions, free play, or maybe a form of group training. When a coach designs a practice or a workout, it’s crucial that they aren’t just “filling time”- everything should have a purpose. For example, the half speed, half engaged “ball-handling workout” at the beginning of practice or a training session is an absolute waste of time. So many coaches and trainers keep kids in the gym for much longer than necessary just to fill the allotted time. Cut practice short and send the kids home. If you’re ambitious, learn more about movement and engage the players in movement efficiency work- every kid on the planet needs more of this. Early in my college career, we used to practice 5-6x a week; many of the practices, especially in the pre-season, stretched for over four hours long per practice. Even if it wasn’t the most physically exhausting practice, every player was cashed out mentally or just from being on their feet for that long. A lot of coaches will rationalize longer practices by saying they are walk-throughs or “mental” practices. Whatever the rationale is, there is likely a ton of wasted time. Long, drawn-out practices take a physical toll on the body, are mentally draining, and cuts into time for school activity as well as the recovery process. Start practice on time and be efficient with the time you have- eliminate drills that have no purpose!

With the numerous programs, teams, and opportunities that are more readily available to kids, parents want to make sure their kids aren’t falling behind. I get it. Parents want their kids to have the training and coaching they never had. They want them to have every possible opportunity to be successful. I respect that and I empathize with how hard it is to decide what’s the best route for a kid. In my opinion, the key is to evaluate the necessity of certain activities. For example, I don’t think it’s necessarily helping a kid to play AAU basketball, practice with their school team, play summer league, and then attend four-hour long camps every day in the summer. Oh yeah- lets not forget they still have to go to baseball practice and go to summer school that day too.

Parents have to do an evaluation or find someone they trust to help identify where their kid is at and figure out what activities can be cut out or replaced. If your kid is spending 4 hours in the gym at summer league and playing for 15 minutes over the course of two games- that time might be better spent in the weight room for an hour and then resting so they can be more effective in other activities. Another idea might be instead of sending a kid to five four-day camps that stretch four hours long each day, send them to one or two short, intense, efficient workouts each week. The key is figuring out what the best, most efficient uses of time are. Don’t just sign a kid up for every activity under the sun because you want them to keep up with their classmates or you think they need twelve hours of activity every day to improve- they don’t! Ask tough questions about training programs and to directors-find out what benefits your kid will receive, and most importantly, have a feel for what your kid wants to do. It’s great to be “putting in the work”, but that should also be coupled with time for free play along with rest.

Honesty is the Only Policy:

I see kids jumping from AAU team to AAU team every season. For many, its not a better opportunity- it has more to do with being promised a starting position, a certain number of shots, and you guessed it….a scholarship. Before I go on- there are a very select few that may get a scholarship- but it won’t be because of any team they play for in the summer or what a program will allegedly do for them. If a player is fortunate enough to get to that point, it will be because he or she earned it through busting their tail in practice and performing to their capability in games. I’m disgusted by how many adults tell kids where they can take them without telling them about the process and the expectations they will have first. We wonder why so many kids think they are “D1 Material”- look no further than how many adults are whispering to kids that they can go “D1” without understanding it themselves or truly informing the kids what it takes to reach that elite level!

I am all in for supporting kids, giving them hope and encouragement, and telling them their dreams are possible, but it’s always coupled with telling them the truth. Every kid that will ever play for me knows that there are no guarantees- except that I’ll do whatever I can to help them, that they will always get my best effort, and that they will be challenged as a person and as a player. The rest is up to them.

Programs and trainers have tons of revenue on the line, they have shoe sponsorships, and personal agendas- they know that most kids are impressionable and sadly, most parents are too. The truth that you have to work hard, make commitments and sacrifices to EARN a scholarship (and that’s only IF you so happen to be anywhere near good enough, which is very rare), playing time, or ANYTHING for that matter isn’t nearly as appealing as shoes, videos, tweets, and guarantees.

Social Media:

Social media is a tremendous asset. I have learned a great deal of information, connected with unbelievable people, and found avenues to help others through it. Unfortunately for all the good that social media can be used for it can also be damaging- especially for kids, parents, and coaches who don’t know any better. Too many are using social media to say, “look at me” and validating their brands on the heels of kids’ accomplishments. Parents and kids love this recognition- it’s hard to blame them- when I was a kid I would have too.

While some programs may be trying to assist in exposure, I question the true intentions of @ mentions on Twitter, the frequent public acknowledgments by trainers, and some of the things attached to AAU programs social media platforms. Maybe I’m wrong in my assumption, but the constant “my guy did this” or “our guy did this” seems like a ploy for validation and is more of a marketing game than anything else, which, if true, is a huge problem. More people are invested and concerned with their personal brands being validated on social media than they are with anything else. I get the marketing component to business- it’s part of it- but at the end of the day, its more important to care about the service and content (some training companies produce awesome content on social media) we are providing than any promotional tactic. If your brand image desires trump the actual service and what you’re doing for the players- you’re damaging the game and harming the system.

Let Them Struggle: 

I talk about this all the time. it’s okay for kids to struggle and at times, fall completely on their face. It’s so hard to see in the moment- but they’ll learn from it at some point, somehow. When parents endorse every complaint from a kid or try to take on and fight every battle for their kids- it really hurts the kid. It’s my personal opinion and policy that a kid always should be the first to approach a coach in regards to playing time. Only after I have had a truly open and honest conversation with the kid will I have a discussion with a parent regarding playing time. It’s not that I don’t want to talk to parents or think they don’t have the right to know (they have every right to know things about their kid)- I want the kid to take ownership and show me that they truly care first. Too many adults want to take challenges away from kids and then turnaround and ask, “Why isn’t this generation persistent, gritty, or resilient?” The answer is easy- they are- they all have it internally, they just never get the chance to be because their opportunity to be is taken away on the first sign of struggle!

I hope I stirred some reflection for anyone who got to this point. If you did make it this far, I truly want to thank you for reading and as always, I welcome any feedback you may have!

In-Season Reminders for Players

Some subtle reminders for players in the thick of a season:

Team is struggling? 

Avoid pointing fingers at teammates, blaming coaches, or packing it in for the rest of the season. Every team goes through struggles, great teams stay connected despite them. Their focus is inward- they ask what can we do to get better? Everyone stays committed to competing at the highest level in which they are capable.

Coaches are all over you?

Good. Sometimes it’s not always easy to be pushed, but I’d rather be pushed than forgotten about. Listen to the corrections, internalize them and keep pushing forward.

Can’t catch a break with officials?

Completely out of your control. Players and coaches aren’t perfect, neither are officials. Focusing your attention on what the referees are or aren’t doing is only going to leave you frustrated. Play through calls/ non-calls to the absolute best of your ability. Don’t wait for an official to bail you out.

Things are going really well?

Don’t become complacent. It’s easy to take a breath or take a drill off in practice when things are going well- don’t succumb to that. Stay committed to the habits that have allowed you to be successful. Continue to set the example in and out of practice.

Body is sore?

Take care of it. Get 8+ hours of sleep. Focus on replenishing your body with healthy food and fluids after practice and games. Do 10-15 minutes of yoga each night.

You’re struggling?

Keep going. Keep moving forward. Stay committed to the process. Your struggles don’t define you, how you respond to them, however, does.

Bottom Line: Life is 10% what happens to you and 90% how you respond. How are you going to respond today?

Getting Better or Wasting Time?

Almost every program and player are engaged in a program or something that will in theory help them get better. Is the work actually leading to improvement? Here are a few thoughts.

You took 500 shots, how many were truly mindful? Did they have a specific purpose? Was it a technique-based session? Did you emphasize your technique EACH rep? If it was less technical-based, did the shots you took directly relate to the shots you’re going to get in the game? How many shots do you take that incorporate some type of decision-making? The big question is were you shooting around and calling it a workout or were you intentionally, deliberately going about your business? There’s a huge difference.

During a practice or workout do the drills you do have purpose? Are you practicing to fill time or are you practicing to bolster a strength or improve a weakness? Why are you at that workout or practice? Make sure you have a clear answer- not just to “get better” or “work hard”. What are you getting better at? How does it correlate with game performance? Are you getting better at specific drills or playing the game of basketball?

You’re sweating like crazy and your arms and legs are going to be extremely sore tomorrow. At times that’s great- it gives you a mental edge. Does the exercise program feature balance between muscle groups? Is it a bodybuilding workout or an athlete-specific workout? Did it address key areas on the body that help you move better and more efficiently?

For teams and coaches, are the drills you’re doing designed to be performed perfectly or are they implemented in a progressive manner to create either a challenge, a learning experience, or improve decision-making? Evaluate what you are evaluating your progress on. As a team are you really getting better because you have perfected a bunch of on-air drills during a practice? It’ll look like it on the surface, but I question whether that will transfer to the game environment.

As a player or a coach make sure you frequently ask yourself, “Why am I doing this?” If you don’t know the answer, get rid of it or figure out a way to effectively add a purpose to it!