With the high school, middle school, and travel/recreational basketball seasons coming to an end, I inevitably have been receiving my usual barrage of emails and questions about my knowledge of an AAU basketball team that their son or daughter can play on this spring or summer. These inquiries beg the question, where has our basketball off season gone? In the high priced world of college scholarships and basketball, two words come to mind: competition and exposure, which according to the masses can only be achieved through game play. The notion of more game play leading to better competition and more exposure to colleges seems to makes sense, but in reality game play is not the answer. In fact, a case can be made that this model is diminishing an already short off season, and ultimately destroying the development of youth basketball players in America.
Game play at the expense of an off season is not the answer to your development as a basketball player. There are reasons that college and professional basketball players have off seasons. During that time, they can let their bodies heal from the rigors of their season and then evaluate their performance that season, determine their weaknesses, and develop an off-season training program that combines basketball skill development and basketball specific sports performance training in order to fix their weaknesses and become a better basketball player. Nowadays, in the United States, our high school and in most cases youth basketball players do not have an off season thanks to the growth in popularity of AAU basketball. AAU has made game play the focus of our players “off season” and they no longer have the time to rest and recover from a long high school season and develop their game according to a self evaluation of their weaknesses. I make the point at all of my basketball skill development workouts of telling my players that pros get paid millions of dollars for a reason and that if they are doing something on the court that works well, then we, as amateurs, should probably be doing the same thing. For example, no one wants to have a jump shot like “little Johnny down the block” but I can bet that everyone wants to shoot like Kevin Durant. If that is the case, then why the hell do most of our youth basketball players’ jump shots look like little Johnny’s and not Kevin Durant’s? The answer is quite simple, not enough players are watching and mimicking the jump shots of great NBA players like Durant. The same logic can be applied to the “off season” scenario. If pros are deserving of an off season and college players are deserving of an off season, then our high school and youth players are also deserving of an off season. This, however, is not the case and the off season for our youth basketball players no longer exists thanks to AAU basketball, posing a major problem for these players on two fronts: overuse injuries and lack of time to develop their game.
First and foremost young basketball players are still developing physically and need the time to do so. I laugh every time a parent asks me if it is safe for their son or daughter to strength train, but will have no qualms with having them play three games of basketball on a Saturday and five to six over the course of two days. This amount of game play over two days is excessive and does more harm than good to a young, developing athlete’s body than a well designed and well supervised sports performance training program. Nonetheless, this overuse of the body in the wrong way is ignored each and every weekend in the spring and summer as players are carted off to basketball tournaments around the country to play an inordinate amount of games. The pattern of excessive game play ultimately leads to injuries from overuse at way too young of an age. Fact is, the body needs time to rest and through rest comes proper development. The “one tournament per weekend” model ignores this fact and does more harm than good to a young basketball player creating injuries that could ruin that player’s career.
Beyond overuse injuries caused from excessive game play, basketball players fail to develop their weaknesses in the off season because they don’t have time to properly train, but rather focus on team practices and…you guessed it, more game play. Off season development is the basis for the success of college and professional basketball players. Look no further than Lebron James. Lebron has been criticized repeatedly throughout his career for his jump shot being a weakness in his game. Guess what he has been working on the past few off seasons, his jump shot. As a result, it is much improved and no longer his glaring weakness. As a matter of fact, Lebron currently has his highest field goal percentage of his career this season at 58% from the floor. This type of improvement does not come by accident. It comes through hard work, hard work that takes place in the off season, something high school and youth basketball players no longer have. The off season needs to be devoted to developing as a player. The primary focus of this development should be on basketball skills then developing your athleticism, and then finally game play, not the other way around. No one should be evaluating their game after their high school season, finding their weaknesses, and then going out and playing their way through them. That is not a remedy for success but rather a system for failure.
Why don’t today’s basketball players have an off season? Because most parents and coaches are convinced that AAU and game play is the be all, end all to competition and exposure and it is not. In fact, too many games makes players numb to competition and winning and losing is no big deal since there will be another game in an hour or so. Further more, as my friend Dewey Ferguson likes to say, AAU does not get you exposure, it gets you exposed. Why? Players fail to develop their game any more because they do not have the time to do so. Consequently, their skills are stagnant and when they get on the court against better competition these weaknesses become exposed and you can kiss your exposure good bye. Finally, the most important detriment excessive game play brings to the table is that it causes overuse injuries. Youth athletes no longer have the time to rest their bodies and develop physically through sports performance training. They simply have no off season anymore and as a result this current model is hurting the game of basketball as a whole. If an off season is an essential part to the games of players who get paid millions to play basketball, shouldn’t it be an essential part for those who want to follow in their foot steps?
How do you feel about game play being the be all end all to a player’s off season? Let me know in the comments section below.