What Every Parent Should Know About the AAU

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This article is designed to guide both student athletes and their parents as they navigate the amateur sports and fitness programs that fall under the umbrella of the Amateur Athletic Union (AAU). With more than 500,000 participants engaged at every age level, the AAU can play an important part in getting students on the road toward athletic participation, physical fitness, and all the benefits that come with these experiences. Our goal is to give you the facts and a better understanding of AAU sports and amateur clubs sports.

When it comes right down to it. Plotting the course to participate in extra curricular activities, especially sports, can be mystifying.

We have identified information to consider when playing youth sports, including: the potential pitfalls of participation; strategies for handling some of the biggest challenges and concerns; illuminating examples from real-world experience; and a list of questions you should ask yourself before proceeding. This comprehensive editorial will hopefully be your guide to enjoying the many beneficial aspects of participation in amateur sports.

What Are AAU Sports?

The Amateur Athletic Union was founded in 1888. It was originally designed to prepare America's amateur athletes to compete in the Olympics and other prominent International competitions.

According to its Mission Statement, the goal of the AAU is “To offer amateur sports programs through a volunteer base for all people to have the physical, mental, and moral development of amateur athletes and to promote good sportsmanship and good citizenship.”

Today, AAU covers a multitude of sports and their motto is “Sports for All, Forever.” Primarily, the AAU organization establishes the rules and standards for competition. AAU oversees sanctioned events for 34 competitive sports categories around the country, to accommodate over 500,000 athletic participants in various age divisions, as shown in the table here below.

The AAU organization gives many kids who would not otherwise have the opportunity a chance to participate competitively in a sport. For more than a century, the AAU has helped countless kids cross the athletic threshold and find their love for the game.

The Ultimate Extracurricular Activity

The Journal of Pediatrics states that “School-age youth should participate daily in 60 minutes or more of moderate to vigorous physical activity that is developmentally appropriate, enjoyable, and involves a variety of activities.”

According to a survey by Project Play, about 80% of parents want their child to get this daily activity in by playing sports. And countless studies have shown that children participating in team sports gain more than just exercise.

Student athletes of high school and college age, have higher graduation rates as well as higher GPA's, on average, than those who don't participate in team sports. Coaches can also be very good role models. Socializing with teammates helps to foster positive personal relationships. And youth sports can enhance your child's ability to communicate and improve their decision-making skills at critical times. Children also learn the benefit of teamwork and time management, developing skills that they'll use throughout their lives. Perhaps most importantly, participation in sports can help build self-esteem, confidence and character.

Understanding the Role of AAU Sports

Fundamentally, AAU provides a chance for your child to gain competitive knowledge and experience in a variety of sports at a very early age. This early opportunity to be involved in sports proves to be an advantageous learning tool for young athletes.

The AAU does have its critics. Some complain that the AAU does not teach kids “the fundamentals” of the game. Others have called it a “cash cow”. In reality, AAU is not responsible for each individual amateur athlete's skill development. AAU merely facilitates the competition for amateur athletes who have the desire to pursue a sport outside of a school-controlled environment.

AAU events also allow amateur athletes to compete alongside diverse levels of talent. Many young amateur athletes may be in the early stages of discovering their abilities or may be late in their size and strength development. AAU events give budding young athletes chance to compete at an appropriate level.

AAUs also open the door for kids to participate in an array of sports instead of being pigeonholed. According to Project Play, the average young athlete now plays fewer than two team sports.

Project Play explains that “Most children flow into only a handful of the more than 120 sports played in the United States. And, as early as the grade school years, those identified as having the most promise get the message from coaches and others that they must specialize in one sport at the exclusion of others in order to fully develop their talents and play at a college, pro, or other elite level. It's a myth. ... Grow the menu of sport options, create better connections to vulnerable populations, and more athletes-for-life will emerge.”

AAU recognizes the value in participating in an array of sports and gives young and aspiring athletes the competitive atmosphere in which to do so.

AAU Sports vs. Amateur Athletic Club Sports

Now that we understand the role of the AAU, it's important to note the distinction between this and the huge spectrum of amateur sport clubs out there. The first word of advice: buyer beware.

There are hundreds of good and bad amateur sports club teams all over the United States serving amateur athletes of all ages. Do the research and be sure that the club your choosing is either truly affiliated with the AAU or is reputable in its own right. Try speaking to other parents in your child's school or in your community for referrals.

Many clubs focus on one sport, others on multiple sports. Some clubs and teams refer to themselves as AAU teams but rarely participate in AAU sanctioned events.

At this time, there is no governing body appointed to regulate and establish rules for amateur athletic club teams. For the most part, amateur sports are only regulated by the participation rules of a handful of organizations like AAU, Little League, etc. There are very few established coaching requirements for most club teams. Club teams are not required to have coaching instruction on fundamentals, health, fitness, training, etc., though good ones have pretty high standards in each of these areas.

Most club sports programs have noble objectives, devoting themselves to teaching young athletes how to compete and reaching out to kids that may not be reached any other way. That said, many amateur sports clubs and organizations are not regulated and operate largely outside of AAU sanctioned events. A number of these amateur sports clubs have endorsement sponsors, though many more have a standard business structure.

Undoubtedly, a certain amount of funding is required to maintain and provide services, facilities, equipment, etc. At the present time, there is great deal of disparity in cost from one amateur sports club to another. As the parent of an amateur athlete, you must consider the cost and decide what is best for your child's skill development. Remember, it's about developing as an athlete and as an individual, so only you and your child can choose the best program for your individual abilities and needs. Amateur sports clubs can run as much as $3500+ per child, per season, or as little as a few hundred dollars. Over the years, some clubs have done an excellent job of making scholarships available to help defray some of the cost of participation.

It's also important that neither the parent nor the student athlete become too deeply consumed with winning. Winning is a nice bonus, but learning how to lose at an early age can also be great tool for their future. Ultimately though, children are there to improve their skills. Therefore, at various stages in the young athlete's development, make sure the amateur sports club team delivers on what they promise and what you hope to get out of it. Assessments should be made along the way, from beginning to the end of the process.

Most amateur programs will have “tryouts.” This is where they can make that assessment of where your athlete fits within their program. These tryouts are generally open to everyone. Fair warning. Like school tryouts, AAU tryouts do not always end well. Not everybody makes the team. Don't let your child get discouraged. Try another club, another team or maybe even a different sport.

This elimination doesn't mean your child is not as talented as the other kids; they may just need time to develop or it just may not be a good fit. In actuality, some club programs are consumed with winning. For others, winning is actually required to a keep a sponsorship endorsement. Another word of warning. sometimes, young amateur athletes can get caught up in these “political elements” of club team participation.

Choosing the Appropriate Sports Club

Choosing the right amateur sports club team for your child can be confusing to say the least, but here's a good starting point: Always place your child's well-being first, and skill development second. You'll be looking for an organization with a reputation for integrity and truthfulness as much as excellence.

Proper equipment and staff to support a particular sport are also necessary. At this point in your search, don't be afraid to pose a few questions to the club director. Here are a few questions that are seldom asked but should be:

It's also important, as you conduct your search, to work with amateur sports club coaches, staff and directors who know the rules for prospective student-athletes. If you are or have a middle or high school-aged amateur athlete, it is imperative that you visit the NCAA compliance website. Find out what your amateur sports club can and, more importantly, what they cannot do for you while you are a part of their program. You do not want to be ruled ineligible by the NCAA.

Amateur Sports Clubs and the Big Business of Sports

Amateur sports club teams occasionally participate in AAU sanctioned events. During these events, they have to abide by the AAU rules and guidelines. They are meant to keep the competition fair. But of course, as is always true in sports (and life), some people are going to bend and break the rules.

Golden State Warriors head coach Steve Kerr offers some interesting and telling thoughts on the impact this has had on the AAU culture:

Even if today's players are incredibly gifted, they grow up in a basketball environment that can only be called counterproductive. AAU basketball has replaced high school ball as the dominant form of development in the teen years. I coached my son's AAU team for three years; it's a genuinely weird subculture. Like everywhere else, you have good coaches and bad coaches, or strong programs and weak ones, but what troubled me was how much winning is devalued in the AAU structure. Teams play game after game after game, sometimes winning or losing four times in one day. Very rarely do teams ever hold a practice. Some programs fly in top players from out of state for a single weekend to join their team. Certain players play for one team in the morning and another one in the afternoon. If mom and dad aren't happy with their son's playing time, they switch club teams and stick him on a different one the following week. The process of growing as a team basketball player — learning how to become part of a whole, how to fit into something bigger than oneself — becomes completely lost within the AAU fabric.

Every amateur club wants that budding talent or next potential superstar, that prospective phenom who shows promise of being a professional or Division I level talent. An amateur sports club having possessed a NBA, WNBA, MLB, NHL, etc. player along the way is like finding the “golden ticket.” Though an organization's intentions may be admirable in developing the potential of young athletes, the cultivation of a singular talent gives credibility, notoriety and market power to a particular amateur sports club. Other talent will come because of it! This means that for some clubs, the motives are strong to discover and help shape future stars.

The huge interest in sports today has created a $55 billion dollar “sneaker and apparel” industry. The Sports tech and gaming industries are also rapidly growing. Occasionally, amateur sports clubs obtain sponsored affiliation with major athletic apparel and shoe companies. The majority of programs participating in AAU sanctioned events are not officially sponsored programs, but are instead typically made up of non-profits and privately-owned, independent clubs. A team can, however, enter an AAU sanctioned event, without any connection to a sports club or organization.

If you want to put together a team, go to www.aausports.org. This autonomy is one of the special things about AAU. As their website explains, “the AAU runs events. It is not in the business of putting teams together nor placing athletes on teams. The AAU cannot, will not, and does not place athletes on teams!"

This is something that you, as a parent or a young athlete, can do yourself. If you and a number of others in your community wish to create a new opportunity for athletic participation for your children, AAU gives you a path and platform for competing.

Or, if you simply wish to involve your child on a team already engaged in participation, you can visit AAUsports.org and register your child for an individual sport from among the large variety of local, state and national competitions.

Joining the Club…or not

To get your young athlete involved with an amateur sports club team, check the web for local amateur sports clubs. A quick online search can tell you of a few clubs in your area. Many of the amateur sports club teams or programs may not be identified as AAU programs, but may still compete in the sanctioned events locally and nationally.

Bear in mind as you seek information on your local amateur sports club teams that there are literally hundreds. No one place on the web has every club team in every sport listed. They fall under many categories. (You will have to call and ask around, a lot if you really want the whole story!)

My best advice is, if you hear about another child that is playing outside of school, speak to them or their parents to learn more. Most communities also have a local YMCA or a community recreation center. Club teams that don't have their own facility may practice at those facilities. You may want to inquire there or at your local workout facility. Usually, those who are athletically inclined can tell you how to get your child involved.

Below are a few online resources to help you get started.

Put Me in Coach!

Generally, amateur sports club coaches are approachable about your child's development and their abilities. Be prepared to take what they say with a grain of salt. They may know the sport, but you know your son or daughter best. Club program politics and making money sometimes cloud good judgment. Most programs are going to do basically the same thing for your child, which includes instruction in the basics, facilitating of positive competition, and fostering respect and good character. If you notice that your child is not developing, playing out of position, or playing a role that is not going to benefit him or her later, it might be time to have a conversation with the coach or, failing that, the program director.

Not all programs are a good fit for every child and no one program has it all figured out. As your athlete engages in higher levels of competition, you will notice an unmistakable difference from one amateur sports club to another. Some amateur sports club teams truly care about each child's development. Your athlete is there to learn how to play a sport to the best of their ability. However, players can get pigeonholed in a position, or take on a role with a particular team that is not going to make them successful in the long run.

For example, your child may be playing a position because he or she is physically larger than the other athletes…for right now. But as a parent, you may know that your child doesn't have much more growing to do. This means that the training they are receiving now may not match their skill set later.

Clearly, a good program director will make the necessary adjustments to benefit your son or daughter. Most will tell you to “trust the process” and “remember the goal.” This is great advice! However, it also implies they have your child all figured out. Your child will show noticeable signs if the process is working towards the goal. You be the judge and jury! Remain an active observer and you can help steward your child's athletic development in the right way.

As a parent, you decide when it is time to address the issue. Give it some time to be fixed. If nothing changes, locating a club team that is a better fit may be the only option. Keep in mind, the grass may or may not be greener on the other side, but the other side may be using more, or less fertilizer. 

Other Tips for AAU Parents

Teaching Boundaries On and Off The Field

Make sure your young athlete knows the boundaries of the amateur club team relationships. Make sure they know what physical contact is off limits with coaches and players as well as what kind of social media contact is prohibited. Every effort should be made to monitor your child's social media, both for indications of improper relationships and to ensure that your child doesn't post anything he or she might regret when trying out for a college sport in the future. Good rule of thumb for kids and social media: If mom wouldn't like it, don't post it!

Beware of Burnout

A lot of young amateur athletes suffer from too much training and not enough recovery time. The results can be mentally and physically taxing. Monitor how much time your child is investing in a particular sport. Watch for signs of fatigue, irritability and frequency of injuries. These simple signs will give you a pretty good idea of how your athlete is doing. Yes, some need to be pushed, but most are going to be under normal daily stress. Kids can put a great deal of pressure on themselves socially and academically. Teach them skills to manage their time and reduce their stress.

If recurring injures persist, it maybe time to reevaluate their training, diet and sleeping habits. Down-time from all activities is good one in a while. Sometimes a different activity is okay, but the body definitely needs time to recover. Longer warm-ups may also help prevent injury and reduce fatigue. If you need more assistance, consult a local sports trainer or sports medicine doctor in your area to make sure your child is getting what he or she needs to succeed.

Take Advice…But With a Grain of Salt

Remember, we are by nature of being parents, somewhat delusional about our child's athletic abilities. Word of advice: when someone is telling you how good, or bad, your young athlete is, cut it in half. (“They are not that good… but, they are not that bad”)

Parents of other players on the team may have good intentions and often take it upon themselves to share their wisdom with your young athlete. This is usually meant be helpful, but can derail some young athletes for two simple reasons. One, that parent may not have any expertise in the sport. Two, they may unintentionally slow an athlete's progress with misdirected advice. Be conscious of these types of situations. Only when you deem it necessary, discuss the matter with your child. Equip them mentally to take the advice respectfully and put it in a safe place.

Amateur Clubs and School Sports

Sometimes, there is friction between school and club teams. Student athletes are sometimes penalized by their school coach for putting in fundamental skill work with a trainer or a club team. This may be a consequence of mutual misconceptions between school team coaches and club team coaches. In the future, amateur club sports might bridge this gap by involving school coaches and physical education instructors in training and coaching at the club level.

The Best Possible Experience

You now know the role of the AAU (Amateur Athletic Union) organization as well as the inner-workings of amateur club teams. Bottom-line: sports are great for kids in so many ways. School teams may or may not have a place for your child. AAU competitions and club teams offer an opportunity for them to develop. They also create an opportunity for young athletes to excel and be challenged in a sport of choice, or participate in a sport that is not offered by their particular school.

To reiterate an important point, AAU is not going to train your amateur athlete. They are only in charge of putting on the event in accordance to their rules. The amateur athlete's development comes from personal dedication, from team coaches, school, and individual training.

Also remember, because you will have to spend some money to join an amateur club, be sure that the club your child joins is a good fit. And you are not just your kid's taxi service to and from practices and events. You are also there to monitor, encourage and support. I can't say this enough, but know that as parents, it is difficult to be objective about your own young athletes abilities. Keep your expectations realistic, but accept only 100% effort in whatever sport they choose. Occasionally remind them they need to be consistent, accountable, and dependable. Always tell them that you love to watch them play!

After reading this, I hope you have a clearer picture of youth sports and, in particular, the unique opportunities availed by the AAU and other affiliated and non-affiliated amateur sports clubs. Should you have questions, please feel free to ask in the comments section below. I'll do my best to speak from experience.

My last word of advice, and perhaps most important of all: enjoy this time watching your child become the best athlete they can be. It goes by pretty fast!

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