High school, AAU, and European club basketball as player development systems

Last week, I wrote about the weekly training schedule for the Unicaja Malaga junior teams. The only comment concerned education.

On another site, I saw AAU basketball criticized for its negative impact on education, following upon the ESPN OTL discussion on AAU vs. high school basketball.

While my main point for this piece is player development, I wanted to address education first. Unicaja plays its games on weekends leaving weekdays free of travel to games. Likewise, AAU tournaments are almost all on weekends. During this past high school season, tournaments that attracted out of town teams started on Tuesdays and Wednesdays. One team which played in several out of town, national-caliber tournaments missed at least 11 days of school in December. Also, I know when I played, a road game typically meant 30 minutes travel to and from the game, plus arriving an hour early, plus one-and-a-half hours for the game, plus 20 minutes post-game. Rather than a two-hour practice, a weekday road game is a three-and-a-half hour time expenditure. So, how is club basketball or the European schedule any more of a threat to education than the high school season?

As for player development, let’s examine the basic schedules:

High School

During the season, teams play, on average, two games per week. A typical  game schedule is Wednesday-Friday. Therefore, teams have three practices per week (Monday, Tuesday and Thursday) and sometimes four (Saturday). The average practice is two to two-and-a-half hours. If the teams plays, on average, one home game and one away game per week, and practices three times per week, the average amount of time spent on basketball is about 13-14 hours per week split between three team practices and two games. Some teams may add weight lifting – though many do not lift during the season – which could add 2-3 hours of weight lifting to each player’s commitment.

Club Basketball

During the spring, most club teams practice 1 – 2 times per week and play a tournament with 3 – 5 games per tournament on the weekend. Some teams do not practice at all during the week because they attract players from a wide geographical area (out of state), so they run mini-camps on weekends where they do not play in a tournament. On average, let’s say that teams practice once per week and play four games in a weekend tournament. Therefore, the average expenditure of time is 10.5 hours plus travel time and dead time at the tournament. Most clubs do not lift weights together.

Due to the lack of practice, many players seek individual training during the week to work on their individual skills. Also, many high schools (at least in California) play year-round, so players have team practices with their high school teams plus spring leagues and/or tournaments.

Unicaja Schedule

Each Unicaja player has two days of individual or position-specific workouts for a total of two hours per week.

They have four team practices that last two hours or less for another eight hours.

They work with a strength coach on speed, quickness, agility and strength for now more than an hour on four days per week for, at most, four hours per week.

They play one game on the weekend. Their total time investment is about 18 hours per week plus travel time to the away games.


Unicaja’s schedule involves slightly more time than the average high school program that lifts weights and considerably more time than the average club team or high school team that does not lift weights.

However, the biggest advantage of Unicaja’s system is that one person – the Head Coach – organizes the entire schedule. Therefore, the assistant coaches, head coach, strength coach and others involved in the development process work together and organize the schedule. If the strength coach thinks the players look fatigued, the coaches can communicate and adjust the schedule or the training.

The problem with the club/high school schedule, especially since many players play for both during the spring, fall and summer, is the lack of communication and coordination. A club coach may give his players a weekend off because he feels they are fatigued, but rather than rest, the players play in a high school tournament or work with a personal trainer.

I spoke to a mother a couple years ago when I invited her daughter to a free workout. Her mother was interested, but said she did not have time. She explained that her daughter had two high school team practices per week, two AAU team practices per week, three sessions per week with a “plyo coach,” two workouts per week with a personal trainer in group workouts and a tournament every weekend with her high school team and AAU team. She invested 15 hours per week plus the weekend tournaments. The irony, however, was that when I watched her play during the season with a college recruiting coordinator, the college coach said that she looked like she could be pretty good if she worked with a good coach!

The problem with her training schedule was that none of the coaches communicated. Her “plyo coach” worked separately from her workout coach and her AAU coach did not communicate with her high school coach. No coach overworked the player by him or herself, but the accumulation of training over time was probably too much (close to 25 hours if you count the weekend tournaments, without a single day to rest).

If looking strictly at the high school schedule versus the Unicaja schedule, Unicaja’s schedule provides several advantages.

  1. Assuming that most coaches do not like to lift weights the day before the game, when can a team lift weights? Monday and Saturday. How productive are workouts the day after a game on the weekend?
  2. The Unicaja schedule incorporates two individual position-specific skill workouts, while the high school schedule is all team practices.
  3. The Unicaja schedule provides a day of rest two times a week (Wednesday and Sunday), while the high school schedule combines the two 0ff-days (Saturday and Sunday).
  4. With a game only on Saturdays, Unicaja can practice hard Monday, Tuesday and Thursday and have a day for a lighter practice before game day. The high school schedule affords a hard practice on Monday.
  5. With two games per week, coaches spend much of their time preparing for their next opponent on their Tuesday and Thursday practices. With one game per week, Unicaja can use Monday, Tuesday and Thursday for more general practices and Friday to prepare for their next opponent.

The Unicaja training schedule favors player development simply because of its structure. Meanwhile, the typical high school schedule is geared toward competition and game preparation.

When I argue about various systems, this is my argument. Unicaja’s system favors development through its schedule. It’s not about coaching styles or ability. The schedule provides the time to emphasize player development, while the high school schedule is more rushed and focused on games.

Secondly, the Unicaja system keeps all parts – players, coaches, strength coaches, trainers – on the same page where they can work together for each athlete, while the current high school/club schedule lacks continuity as each segment works as its own entity.

The high school/club schedule puts a heavy emphasis on the player and parents to understand his body, understanding his training and create an individual program within these different entities to meet the individual’s needs within his various team’s goals and schedules.

I know players who skip club practice to work with trainers because they feel the club practice is useless. I know players who skip high school tournaments for club tournaments because of the better competition. I know players who skip club practices for a high school league game because they feel that games are more important than practices.

Because of all their commitments, they are stretched and have to make choices which often pits one coach against another in a battle for a player’s loyalties.

The Unicaja system eliminates these choices and battles and organizes all the training activities in one location with one goal and one commitment for the players. The benefits of the Unicaja system are those that I envision for the Elite Development League and see as an improvement over the current system where players go back and forth between high school and club ball and trainers and strength coaches. My goal with the EDL is to present an alternative that negates the pressure that players feel to transfer schools to a better basketball program and creates a more unified development system rather than the current hodge-podge of programs to encourage a more balanced, periodized schedule which emphasizes player development with competition, not just game preparation and competition.

By Brian McCormick, PhD
Coach/Clinician, Brian McCormick Basketball
Author, Cross Over: The New Model of Youth Basketball Development
Director of Coaching, Playmakers Basketball Development League

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