AAU and Organized Sports: How to Get Your Own Life

My family and I have a long and sordid affair with AAU basketball. If you are unaware of the universe of AAU, which stands for Amateur Athletic Union sports, you likely still have your own hobbies, your weekends free and some disposable income left to spend! If you are an AAU parent of any sport, you likely have none of these things!

AAU is an organized system of competition for a variety of sports, which focuses on regional teams and tournaments. I have been an AAU basketball parent through two boys and two girls. As such, these are my stats in total dedicated hours and expense:

Practice waiting hours: 486 (or approximately 20 days)
Game Hours: 180 (or one week)
Travel days: 3.5 months
Money spent: $9000.00– conservative estimate

Anyone who has had a child participate in AAU can appreciate these numbers. I share them because they represent an extreme! But they really don’t even tell the full story, do they?

When you commit yourself and your child to AAU basketball, you are buying in (and I do mean literally buying in) to an obligation that will take over your life. Most everything else you value will be a collective family sacrifice, including all of your free time; all of your vacation time; all of your other relationships; and a good portion of your discretionary funds. Once on a team, your child is expected to live and breathe basketball (or whatever sport they do)…and so are you.

I just ran into a fellow parent from my daughter’s old AAU team. Our team has been defunct for 4 years, and this fellow parent’s daughter has not played basketball for 3 years. But the parent is now an AAU basketball referee. AAU is no longer a part of his daughter’s life. But he is still in it. Bless him!

Some (the more balanced) teams make noises about valuing the “whole child” and they make gestures toward prioritizing academic achievement. Yet, don’t let a school final exam or project conflict with a tournament. When they do, all of that noise and posturing about the importance of education flies right out of the window. You are expected to choose the game. On our daughter’s club team soccer, church was not an excused absence from a Sunday soccer game. So you better plan your worship carefully. You might have to change churches!

I could, and perhaps someday I will, write a very voluminous book about the warped world of youth competitive sports. To be fair, there are many joys in, and lots of value to, participating in intensive organized sports. But I am addressing (ranting about) AAU briefly here because this past weekend I had another AAU basketball encounter that was especially disturbing to me. It made the memories of all of the insanity come flooding back.

My 11-year-old son plays on a YMCA basketball team. In the world of AAU, the YMCA teams are considered the lowly scourge of basketball. In the eyes of many AAU devotees, YMCA teams are populated by non-talented and uncommitted non-athletes. To them, if you were a real basketball player, you would be on an AAU team. The coach of my son’s Y team entered the team into an AAU tournament. He is still a pure and naive soul (meaning uninitiated to AAU ways).

Surprisingly, our team was doing pretty well in the tournament–winning some and losing some by close scores. Their very last game was a nail-biter– very close and very physical. And our team won. They were very proud of themselves until they discovered that the team they had just defeated was a team of 2nd and 3rd graders –8 year olds (remember, my son’s team were 11-year-old sixth graders)!

This team of babies was very upset that they lost to our “sorry YMCA team” and so were their parents. In fact, the parents were borderline irate. This group of young parents were already fully indoctrinated to the AAU mentality and they were deeply “in it.” They boasted that there were very few 3rd grad teams in the AAU system. Their talented boys were, so the inference goes, already special.

Because AAU basketball has become the vehicle by which young athletic prospects are discovered, cultivated and funneled to college basketball programs across our fine nation, AAU is considered the must-do activity for the family that decides that their child is (or is going to become) an elite basketball player. Thus, AAU has developed into a major cottage industry unto itself and has, over these years, developed its own culture (as I have previously alluded to). A big part of this culture is over-zealous parenting and coaching; high pressure competition within and among teams; and under the table unscrupulous financial dealings (okay, I’ll change that to unscrupulous at worst and onerous and unfair at best).

I will acknowledge that my family was served relatively well by the AAU system. My nephew was able to play basketball in a fine Ivy League school due largely to the exposure AAU afforded him. And my other children learned some valuable lessons about work ethic, teammanship and commitment. Most of them went on to be recruited and play in college (though not in basketball). I believe that AAU helped them become better athletes in general. So I get the value of good, organized competition. But there is so much I want to tell the group of young parents of that 3rd grade team. I want them to make a good thing better by not buying into the craziness. I also want to save them from themselves. It’s the least an old burned-out AAU fall-out mother can do.

I want AAU basketball parents…and club soccer parents… and even the occasional hard-core YMCA parent…really all parents starting out in organized sports, to consider these sincere and well-meaning suggestions:

1. Who’s the Player anyway? Please keep your expectations in check.  If you, as a parent, are involved in structure organized sports because you are harboring the hope that your baby will be the next Lebron, and is going to be drafted right out of high school and will shortly thereafter buy you a mansion, ask yourself this question:
How many names of the other players on Lebron’s AAU team do you know? None, right? Yes, Lebron played in the AAU system. Yes, he belonged to a team of young athletes. But besides Lebron, who are they? Most of us don’t know because they are not playing pro basketball. The reality is –Lebron represents less than 1% of the population. With this is mind, at least let your child have a plan B, like a normal childhood and a chance to learn to read well.

2. Pace Yourself. There is a long, long distance between 3rd grade and 12th grade. You going all hot and heavy in elementary school is a little crazy. Look up the word “Burnout” in the dictionary. At this rate, burnout for your family is inevitable. The only question remaining is who will get there first– you or your child!

3.There really are other things–Really! If the vast majority of AAU parents would spend 1/2 of what they spend on AAU in time and money toward their child’s education and intellectual development, everyone would be better off. They would be better athletes and better prepared to take full advantage of their talents. If the AAU community cultivated a collective priority that would support education, intelligence and balance instead of sports as the only way up and out, we’d be in a wholly different place. I wonder how many kids on that third grade team can read well. I really want to know. I’m not judging, I’m just..well… judging, I guess. Still, the question is a valid one.

4. Find Your Own Sport. People think I am being facetious when I have given this advice before. But I’m not. If you can’t enjoy your child’s sport as a detached supporter who can revel in their accomplishments and know that their mistakes are their own lessons, then you should pursue the joy of competition for yourself (without the middle-child)! There are few things as unhealthy and as detrimental to a parent-child relationship  as a parent living vicariously through their child’s experiences. If your child LOVES basketball or if they have a natural affinity toward the sport, OR if your child is good enough at the sport to be able to use it to get into college– then go ahead and do AAU basketball in middle school. But if after you’ve done an honest self-evaluation, you discover that your main attraction is the thrill, ego boost and/or the degree of control you, the parent, experience– I strongly suggest that you let your child off the hook and find your own athletic outlet.

5.Make it Positive. If you do decide to participate in AAU or any organized sport, remember that the whole point of the endeavor is to develop capable children who learn the value of hard work, mastery and good sportsmanship. Being an overly-involved and overly-critical parent is actually counter-productive to these worthy goals. If you have nothing positive or constructive to contribute to your child’s experience, with your words and actions, then keep quiet and let the coach do his or her job. Sometimes it’s best to just get out of the way. Let me just say that one more time–Sometimes it’s best to just get out of the way. I’m just going to be blunt here–parents screaming negative comments from the sidelines is a disgrace. If you want to coach, sign up and put the whistle on. If what you yell to your child (or the other children) cannot be translated to “good job” or “hang in there”, it should not be said. Period.

I am not claiming to be an expert here. I have just been a sport parent for twenty-five years now. I have been on the sidelines for hundreds of hours, from California to New York and in between, in 15 degree snowy weather and 115 degrees sweltering heat, 100% humidity, rain, sleet and blow-your-lawn-chair-away winds. I have been in the stands when parents fought, had heart attacks and been arrested. I’ve witnessed the growth and building and the deconstruction of many a young athlete. And I am still in it– I get to film my son’s first Pop Warner football game next Saturday! So I have lots of thoughts about sport parenting. But the one thing I know for sure is that parents must choose if they are going to be an asset to their athletic child or a detriment. You gotta get in touch with your own motivations and make sure they are, in fact, about your child and not about you!

I’m. Just. Say’n!



  1. Hi! Followed you back too. Thanks!

  2. I love this my step son is in AAU and I watched my husband shuffle everything to the point of burn out. I will print this out and put it on the kitchen table. 🙂

  3. Gina Carroll says:

    Oooh, Lucinda! If your husband is to the point of burn out, he probably already knows all of this! At least he can view it as commiseration!

  4. Gina, you presented a very accurate and balanced view of AAU basketball. There is much that is sordid and sad about AAU. For instance, I have been at tournaments in which our team was being beaten by 60 points and the parents of the opposing team were egging them on to break triple digits. I have also seen police involvement to break up fights and remove irate parents. There is also much that is good about AAU – hard, competitive play with good sportsmanship on both sides. But the good comes with plenty of bad.

    The key is the coach – you need to find one who is genuinely committed to player development even when that means a lot of losses. And that goes for the other parents, too. You would be surprised how other parents can start backstabbing and infighting after a string of losses. For many coaches, the primary objectives of an AAU team are (1) To generate a reputation as a winning coach that might lead to bigger and better things, and (2) To find and latch onto a phenomenal athlete who can carry the AAU coach into college, or even the pros. Meanwhile they are also looking to make a bit of money on the side through fees, fundraisers, hosting tournaments, etc. — all of this translates to a lot of parent volunteer time. This type of coach is looking to leverage your kid to obtain notoriety and a better life for themselves. If your kid lets them down, then there are dozens of other kids waiting to take his place.

    I have seen many basketball “phenoms” come and go. Some kids are 6 feet tall in the sixth or seventh grade and athletic. But a year or two later they haven't grown much and others have advanced their games faster, leaving the former phenom behind. Keep in mind that kids who are told that they are better than everyone else tend to think that they don't need to learn anything and don't need to work hard. Then reality catches up with them.

    AAU can be a positive experience, overall, if you find the right coach/team, understand the AAU system, and can work past the unpleasant aspects. But you have to look out for the welfare of your kid because few others will unless he looks like the next MJ, Kobe, or LeBron.

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