Playing AAU or Club Basketball

By Dr. James Gels, From the Coach’s Clipboard Basketball Playbook
"Helping coaches coach better..."

"Should my child play AAU, or club basketball?"

This is off-season basketball (off the usual school basketball season). You have to consider your schedules, time-constraints, priorities. Family and school should always be more important than club basketball. Conflicts can and do occur, especially if your child plays more than one sport.

AAU basketball

For example, you may have an AAU tournament event scheduled for the same weekend that there is a volleyball, softball, or baseball tournament, or maybe a summer football camp. High school basketball programs usually also have their own summer camps and tournaments. So how much time do you and your child have... and still have time to go to the beach, family picnics, a family vacation, and just have fun?

LA Laker Kobe Bryant voiced his strong objections to AAU basketball: "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."

Charles Barkley has also stated, "AAU is the worst thing to happen to college basketball ever. I hate AAU more than anything in the world. These kids aren't getting good coaching. They're playing too many games and not working on their game enough."

You can find many arguments for and against AAU and "club" basketball programs. I will not get into all those arguments here, except to mention a few things and describe what's involved with playing on or coaching an AAU team.

What is AAU?

AAU ("Amateur Athletic Union") is one of the largest, non-profit, volunteer, sports organizations in the United States. It was founded in 1888 "to establish standards and uniformity in amateur sport".

In 1996, the AAU joined Walt Disney World and relocated its national headquarters to Orlando, Florida. More than 40 AAU national events will be conducted at the new Disney's Wide World of Sports Complex in Orlando. There are many regional or state-level organizations, and probably your own state has both a girls and boys AAU organization.

Many AAU programs, and "club" teams, have teams for different age groups, girls and boys. They are coached oftentimes by former players, parents and occasionally high school coaches. Some high school coaches argue that AAU is bad and they don't want their players playing for another coach and in another system.

AAU coaches sometimes argue that the high school coaches are inferior and got the coaching job simply because they are in the educational system. So you can see how the arguments could get nasty.

The fact of the matter is that coaches are people, whether AAU or high-school... some are excellent (in both programs) and some are awful (in both programs). I think a club team (AAU) is what you make it... it's what the coaches, players and parents want it to be.

It should be a fun-thing, not something the kids should feel compelled to do. And it rarely hurts to play for another coach... just playing, getting your hands on the ball in the off-season is helpful, whether you are just playing games or doing fundamental drills.

There are two general types of AAU clubs based on philosophy. The first is a participation type team, where all players are expected to play. The second is a performance type team, usually an "all-star" selected team, where the best players play and teams go to win games and events.

AAU basketball team

So with your own child, find out about your local clubs, and pick the club that suits your own philosophy. Of course, the kids usually want to play on the same team with their best friends, so perhaps that it the most important thing.

Also, find out what the time commitment is. Many AAU teams just play or practice on the weekend, but some performance teams will practice a couple times during the week as well. Find out what your costs will be. Club teams have costs and are not free generally.

Performance type clubs are competitive and passionate in their approach, and require commitment (both time and money), and you will likely be playing with and against the best players. The disadvantages include those very things... level of commitment, time, and costs. Additionally, there is usually less individual skill development instruction, with most teams geared toward playing multiple games in weekend tournaments. Playing multiple games can be a good thing, but also exposes players to fatigue, injuries and burn-out. You will also likely run into some overly-aggressive parents who are really pushing their own kids.

High level, elite AAU basketball is for those kids that have a burning passion to play at the college level. You will play with the best players, and you will find out whether or not you can compete at that level, and have the commitment that it entails. AAU coaches, for the most part, don't have enough practice time to work with players on their individual skill set. A serious player might need a personal trainer for that.

On the other hand, AAU teaches players how to "play the game", how to compete - against other very competitive players. The focus is on playing games and tournaments, and thus team skills are enhanced, and you can't get that from a personal trainer who just works on individual skills. But it all takes up a lot of time, most of the spring and summer, and a lot of dedication and discipline. It's a far cry from what basketball inventor James Naismith originally had in mind - just a fun game to play in PE class.

To become a high level, college level player you probably need all the resources: (1) your school team, (2) a personal skills trainer, (3) a strength and agility trainer, and (4) a good AAU experience. Whew... life was a lot easier when I grew up! I'm getting philosophical here by saying that the kids nowadays, across the board, are better players than we were years ago, but perhaps we had more fun growing up, just being kids, and playing for our school team.

It is also true that playing AAU often does help players and coaches get more "exposure", as some of the larger events are attended by college coaches or scouts. It can be a good experience meeting and playing with players from other school-systems... or it can be a grind.

I have personally coached both AAU and high school basketball, so I have been on both sides of the fence. I love high school coaching because of all the practice time you get for teaching fundamentals, individual and teams skills.

A frustration of mine with coaching AAU was the lack of practice time, gym time, and kids not showing up for practices. In AAU, it's often more difficult to get gym time, and kids are usually busy during the week with school, family or church activities, making it hard to have weekday practices.

So you end up playing games and tournaments on the weekends, which is what the kids like doing anyway. But you don't get much time to teach individual fundamental skills. But still, I had lots of fun coaching AAU... getting to work with the kids, getting to know their parents, some fun weekend trips, etc.

The club that I coached was pretty good, but more of a participation type team. We would scrimmage other local clubs on weekends, and would go away "downstate" to three or four weekend tournament events each season.

In retrospect, three was probably enough as usually by the time of the fourth tournament, the kids and parents were pretty "burned-out" and the thought of going away for another weekend (travel, hotel, etc), lost it's initial excitement and appeal.

Once again, I think it has to be fun for the player, not something that he/she feels compelled to do. See this article, "Are We Pushing Our Young Athletes Too Fast".

I have seen good players turn away from the game, because they simply "got sick of it"... too much time, commitment and pressure, and not enough time just "being a kid". So there are advantages and disadvantages, and you as the parent know your own child better than anyone else.

Starting your own AAU club-team

Anyone can start up their own AAU club and team. Go to the AAU homepage for details on what's involved, costs, registrations, insurance, etc.


Are you going to be a participation type team, where everyone gets to play, or a performance team, where you pick and play the best players and try to win games and events? Make sure that prospective players and parents know which type you are.

AAU basketball team

Get registered

There is a club registration fee to join, and each player and coach must be a registered member (else your liability insurance may be voided). It's good to be part of the AAU since there are many sanctioned tournaments, and because inexpensive liability insurance is provided.


In addition to club registration, player and coach registration costs, there will be uniform expenses, possibly expenses for gym time, transportation and hotel costs, and tournament entry-fee expenses.

You can find sponsors, solicit donations, have fund-raisers (such as hosting your own tournament), or simply factor in all the costs and charge each player up front a set fee for covering all these expenses. Many clubs do a combination of the above.

Arrange for gym time

You will need to secure gym time for your teams. We have an arrangement with the local school system, using the high school, middle school and elementary school gyms. You may have to contact other private (for rent) facilities.

Forming teams

Determine how many teams (age groups) you want to have in your club. This may be limited by the number of coaches you can recruit and the availability of gym time, as well as player interest. Check out the age requirement rules for boys and girls, as they might be different, and these are based on age, not what grade in school.

Recruit some dedicated coaches... former players, parents, or a high school coach. High school coaches are often limited however by their state basketball association rules. For example, in our state, a high school coach can only coach three of his own players on a team in the off-season. So he ends up coaching an "all-star" team with players from several different schools.

Technically, AAU requires a try-out for each team (although high level teams actually recruit for the best players). At this try-out, complete the AAU registration forms and collect the fees... get it over and done right away. Each player needs the insurance coverage provided by membership. I never liked cutting kids from a program. We would always make every effort to keep each kid that really wants to play, even if it meant forming a second team.

Initial Team-Parent Meeting

Have a pre-season meeting with players and parents to state your philosophy, policies and rules. Recruit parent volunteers to help with the clock, scorebook, stats, providing treats, transportation to games and events, etc.

Determine how many weekend events they wish to travel to, and when to go... what weekends are already booked with school, church or community events. Discuss whether you want to play mostly "friendship" tournaments on the weekends, and whether you want to enter the annual state-level AAU tournament.

Scheduling Games and Tournaments

Your state AAU organization probably has a website that lists all the AAU sponsored weekend tournaments and events that you can sign up for. Pick out the events that you want to play in and save your spot early, as sometimes these events fill up quickly.

We always tried to have a good repoire with other local clubs, coaches and players. We can scrimmage with these area teams on weekends, at no cost. So if you can find several competitive local clubs, you can get games without incurring a lot of additional costs.

The Bottom Line...

It's got to be fun for the kids... something that they want to do.

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