This was originally published as a 3-part series. Part 2 was written for clubs/coaches, while part 3 was written for parents/players. You can scroll directly to either of these sections below. For coaches and clubs, go to "There's a Better Way." For parents and players, go to "A Parent's Guide."
I hate tryouts. It is one of the worst aspects of youth soccer and, for me, the most dreaded time of year.
Tryouts are when many of the reasonable people – coaches, parents, administrators, and players alike – begin to act unreasonably. Stress rises, people become anxious, and everyone acts differently. We get so focused on trying to figure out what everyone else is going to do, rather than just focusing on what we can control and doing what we do the rest of the year.
Parents and kids get worried about who else is going to try out and who else might make certain teams, and clubs get worried about where else kids might be trying out and how/when other clubs are conducting their tryouts… It’s just a big, emotional, toxic mess. Why do we do this to ourselves, and why have we been accepting it as “normal” for so long? It doesn’t have to be this way.
And before we go any further, I will admit that I was never cut from a soccer team growing up. I went to many tryouts and made every single one of them. I was also super competitive, and I still am. So this is not just someone remembering the horror of childhood; this is someone who has since observed and been a part of many tryouts as a coach and director of youth organizations, all of them dreadful.
Stop Calling It “Tryouts”
First of all, I hate the name. Who is trying out? What are they trying out for? 90% or more of the kids are returning to their same team or organization and will continue to play there. Why bring extra stress and pressure to the situation? Not to mention that the time spent with a player over the course of a season or year will tell us much more about a player than one or two 90-minute tryout sessions – are we really going to make a decision based on how a player performs in these one-off situations? If not, why go through the process in the first place?
And for 99% of the programs out there, there is no reason kids should be getting “cut” from programs. No, we’re not an “elite” program. If our players were elite, they’d have professional contracts. The reality is that we are grassroots, and the number one priority of grassroots organizations should be providing a positive way for kids to play soccer.
Furthermore, many kids simply get moved from one team to another within a club or organization, not let go completely. This is not a tryout; this is an evaluation and placement. So stop calling it by the name that only exists to cause pressure and stress. And in the case that a child is actually not accepted into a program whatsoever, the organization should provide an alternative, rather than having a child and family stranded with no place to play – it’s the decent thing to do.
It Shouldn’t Be So Complicated
I recently had a phone call with a friend. His daughter will be U12 in the fall. She has been playing with a team for the last few years and has had a fairly positive experience. Now all of the sudden, they are having 58 girls try out for 24 spots... What?! This means that 34 girls will be left with possibly no option to play. For me, it only makes sense to make 4 or 5 teams, even if they don’t live up to supposedly “elite” standards.
My friend was calling me for insight about finding a place for his daughter to play, since mathematically, it seems improbable that his daughter will make the team she’s been a part of for multiple years. She now has to go around all over town and “tryout” at various organizations. Just the gas and mileage spent on traveling to all of these is unreasonable enough, let alone the stress of having to meet a bunch of different people who will be casting judgement on an 11-year old girl. Why must it be so complicated? This girl just wants to play soccer, have fun, and get better. Should it really be so hard to do?
Managing the Situation
So far, I’ve mostly just been ranting about tryouts, but I haven’t really provided an alternative or solution. Managing tryouts and how to make the process healthier will be explained in the two sections below. One of them will focus on the perspective of clubs and organizations, and the other will focus on the perspective of parents and players.
THERE'S A BETTER WAY
(for coaches and clubs)
The worst reason for ever doing something is “we’ve always done it that way.” This is not evidence that something works – only that something better has not been done. Such is the case with youth soccer tryouts.
For some coaches, clubs, and organizations, they know better and refuse to come up with or implement something better. Some are simply taking advantage, while others are scared of trying something new out of fear of losing players. For other organizations, they simply don’t know of a better way – they just recognize that everyone else conducts tryouts and follow the lead.
It’s about time that people begin to think outside of the box and actually follow through with all the things they pretend to believe in (like player development). It’s about time that people stop conducting tryouts.
The Hypocrisy of Tryouts
These days, it seems everyone wants to claim that they are about development over winning. The reality, however, is that they are about team development, not player development, which is damaging in the long-run. Club culture is important, specific team “chemistry” over a long period of time is not. And truth be told, focusing too much on team success is focusing on winning, not development – tryouts are one piece of evidence that proves this.
If clubs are truly focused on development, why are they always looking for new (“better”) players? What does this admit about the ability of their coaches? Shouldn’t a development-based club’s goal be to develop players so well that any new kids who come in will be too far behind? Yes, such an environment is possible – it just takes focused, purposeful coaching throughout the season.
In reality, however, even the most well-intentioned clubs and coaches become poachers, not developers. They are out to find new players and recruit kids from other organizations. Whether it’s subconsciously making up for a lack of coaching ability or simply trying to grow numbers (A.K.A money), this is not a development-based approach. If coaches and clubs spent all that recruiting effort on developing players better, they wouldn’t have to host tryouts or search for new kids.
It Starts with Creating the Right Environment
In order to create a situation in which tryouts are unnecessary, coaches don’t need to be developing the world’s best youth players; they simply need to be creating the world’s best environment. Such an environment will help retain all current players, as well as attract new ones, whether we want it or not. Coaches do not need to be complete experts of the game to do this.
The right environment begins with everyone in the organization being on the same page from the top down. Everyone needs to understand the philosophy and mission, as well as protocol and policies. And perhaps most importantly, the environment needs to be one focused on excellence. This includes constant and continuous emphasis on coaching education and parent education. It’s about providing value to others, as well as developing a superior service over time. As one of my colleagues recently tweeted, “And we actually talked to our parents instead of just cash their checks.” It’s amazing how many clubs do the opposite.
A New Kind of Process
So what does this actually mean? What does this look like when implemented? It’s quite simple really.
Before we get into the actual process of accepting new players and signing kids up at the beginning of the season, clubs need to establish the right kind of organization within their current structure. When we talk about club culture vs. teams, or player development vs. teams, one of the biggest aspects is how kids are placed within teams and how (or if) they are moved from team to team within the club.
Coaches and clubs need to be constantly evaluating the developmental progress of their players and thinking about where players fit in best. As it currently stands, most clubs evaluate every child in one or two days during tryouts, place them on a team for the upcoming season, and the kids are stuck there all year. What if the evaluation was inaccurate? Or more realistically, what if a child suddenly becomes exponentially better by November, with half the year remaining? There needs to be a system in place that allows kids to move to different groups within the course of a season/year, not just at the beginning of a new year. Child development is a crazy, unpredictable roller coaster, and we need to be able to adjust based on children’s sudden developmental peaks and plateaus. This can mean pool training within an age group, or simply a communication between coaches/teams. If clubs do not have multiple teams in an age group, maybe a child practices (if not plays games) with the team one year older. There is not one blanket solution for everyone, but there is a basic concept that works and that can be implemented in various ways.
Accommodating New Players
New players will come, and current players will leave. When current players leave, be sure to conduct an exit interview – you’ll be surprised what you learn. When new players come, they are the only ones who need to be evaluated. Simply have these players attend practices of the current team(s) and see where they fit in. Place them accordingly. Yes, it really is that simple.
What if a new player is not at an appropriate level for a team/club? This will happen. There are two solutions to this: 1. If possible, keep all kids and provide some way for them to play, have fun, and improve – maybe this means just practicing, or playing unofficial “scrimmages” (not league sanctioned) with a younger team. 2. Develop a relationship with another nearby organization that will be more appropriate for these players and to whom you can refer them – these relationships inevitably flow both ways.
What if there are too many players for a team, but not enough to create a new one? If there are some players who are not at a similar level, see the previous paragraph. If they are all at an appropriate/similar level, find a creative solution. Maybe this means having “too many” players on a team, and creating a rotation in which one or two players do not dress for each game (each player will sit out one game each season, but play the rest of them) – e.g. 13 players on a 12-player roster: only 12 players dress each game, and the one sitting out is a different person each match.
Overcoming Obstacles of Reality
Yes, being different comes with challenges. When everyone else is holding tryouts, and you aren’t, won’t that create confusion or put your club at a disadvantage? Not really. If the process is communicated clearly with current families, they will understand (and undoubtedly appreciate) the new process. But what about adding new players?
Given that the current culture consists of holding tryouts, it might be a good idea for clubs implementing a better process to hold some sort of “event.” Just don’t call it tryouts. Call it “evaluations,” or “team placements.” Or, my personal favorites, “registration night” and/or “open house.” When it comes down to it, tryouts are simply a method to secure and establish what teams we will have in the fall season. Clubs just want to get commitments from players. So, instead of creating a pressure-centered, anxiety-filled event like tryouts, simply have a fun event in which kids get to play some soccer (perhaps make it a “street soccer” night), and parents fill out paperwork and make a commitment to the club. New kids can be invited to learn about the organization and be evaluated in a pressure-free environment to see where they might fit in best.
What about people who leave? Won’t some families want a tryout situation? Yes, of course they will. But if someone is going to be so insistent about holding tryouts that they will leave because of it, do you really want them at your club? Inappropriately-competitive parents tend to cause a whole lot of problems throughout the year and damage a positive culture – is that worth dealing with? It’s up to each organization to make that call. Even if the player is really good – damage to the culture creates serious long-term problems.
If this process somehow catches on, there are some principles that must be followed by such organizations. These ideas are a major part of what makes the current tryout system such a horrible, toxic mess.
1. Organizations must define their purpose and mission, and be honest about their level. As I stated above, the vast majority of programs shouldn’t be cutting players completely. There are ways to allow everyone to play. But be honest – if a child truly isn’t at an appropriate level, provide an alternative, don’t just cut them loose. This also applies to setting procedures and principles – if teams are fluid, they are fluid. If not, they are not. Are players allowed to play up? Who makes that call? These procedures need to be set and always upheld – even if it disappoints some people.
2. Be honest with players and families. Don’t try to guess what it is that they want to hear and just try to please them. Be honest and open, provide options, and allow them to make an informed decision. Yes, some players might leave in the short-term, but in the long-run, honesty pays off. Even if we “win-over” a family by being less-than-completely honest, they will eventually realize it and leave anyway – but even more angry/upset than before.
In the end, it is the responsibility and within the power of the clubs and organizations to create a positive change. Clubs need to be courageous and brave enough to be different from the rest by getting away from the tryout process. Then ultimately, it is within the power of parents and families to find these programs and empower them to succeed by leaving the programs who insist on creating the tryout environment and joining those with a more positive, effective process.
A PARENT'S GUIDE
(for parents and players)
If there’s one group of people who hate tryouts the most, it’s parents. Dealing with the stress, anxiety, and uncertainty of their children’s future and opportunity to play soccer takes a major emotional toll.
Of course, if more clubs adopted the process I described above, pretty much all of the stress, anxiety, and uncertainty would not exist. And if a club in your area adopts such a policy, perhaps it is worth joining them. However, until then, we have no choice but to endure the current, dreadful tryout culture.
How can parents manage? How can they best guide their children through the process to make it as positive (or least-negative) as possible?
Relax, It’s Just Tryouts
Yes, it’s a stressful, emotional, uncertain time. But only if we let the actions and environment created by others get to us. Any uncomfortable feelings we have as parents are completely justified, but the best way to handle the nonsense created by others is to focus on what we can control.
We can’t control who gets picked for a team, who leaves the club, or any of the other politics and drama that come with the tryout process. What we can control is how we approach the situation and react to it. For our children, that means focusing on doing their best and having fun playing while at tryouts. No matter what happens, that is what matters most. If they do those two things, they succeeded at tryouts. For parents, it means staying calm, keeping a “big-picture” perspective, and helping our children stay focused on their own actions.
An easy way to do this is to think about the worst case scenario. What’s the worst thing that could happen at tryouts? Our child does not make the team. If we can handle and survive this (which we can!), we can handle and survive any other outcome.
If our child does not make the team, it’s not the end of the world. Making a soccer team does not define our children. Let that be clear to us and to our children. So in the bigger, life-picture, not making a team is virtually meaningless. However, there are two things we must do for our children: help them learn from it, and provide them a means of playing.
What’s the lesson to be learned? That we will not always get what we want, and when this inevitably happens, we have to re-focus on what we can do to eventually get it. In this case, it means practicing and learning more to become a better soccer player. There are a number of ways to do this, and the best way is to simply play soccer.
How do we provide them a means to play if they did not make the team? Easy: play on a different team. For those who are in smaller communities that only have one club, there can always be a conversation with that club about providing an option to play – maybe just at practices or with another team in the club. There is also the traditional recreational route, in which every child is guaranteed a spot. And of course, like many of the great soccer players in history, no formal team is necessary to simply play soccer – grab some friends and play. To practice and learn new skills, kids can always explore videos on the internet.
Research, Research, Research
It is our responsibility as parents to research the organizations in which we register our children. We need to make sure that a club is the right fit for our child and family. This might mean we intentionally avoid the most competitive or winningest program, or it might mean choosing a large organization.
First and foremost, we must find out the policies and philosophy of each club in regard to tryouts. Do they cut players completely? If so, under what circumstances? What is their priority for determining the placement of players? What is their policy for notifying families of the results? Do they seem to take preference over retaining current players or acquiring new players? Do they make premature promises? Do they help players who do not make teams find another place to play?
The answers to these questions will tell us a lot about the organization and how it will operate throughout the year. Speak to the coaches, board members, directors, administrators, current parents and former parents. Get as many perspectives and try to see as full of a picture as possible before entering the tryout process. It will prevent many problems and save a lot of time.
Preparing Our Children
As always, the children are the number one priority. Every parent knows their child best and must alter how they prepare their young player based on his/her personality. The best way to know how to approach the situation is to ask questions: Why do they like to play? What’s most important to them when it comes to playing/being on a team? What are their goals?
Often times, we will find that asking our children about their perspective from the start will alleviate many of our worries. Most of the time, we are the only ones worried – children are rarely concerned with much more than just playing and having fun.
But in the case that our child does have some other worries, we must help them enter to process with a healthy perspective. Again, address the worst case scenario, and help them be okay with it – ensure them that there is a solution to it. And again, ask them if they have any specific concerns or worries, then help them focus on their own actions and ensure that a solution can be found to any obstacles.
Finding Solutions to Obstacles
Any undesirable outcome to tryouts is merely an obstacle to be overcome, not an end result. It is up to us, as parents, to help our children find a solution to any such obstacles. We must be proactive by anticipating such obstacles and having a plan of attack ahead of time – before the tryout process begins.
What if my child does not make a team? Read the above explanation – it doesn’t take much to play soccer.
What if my child isn’t placed with friends? This could be a blessing in disguise. Help them understand the potential benefits and encourage them to give it a shot.
What if my child is moved from an “A” team to a “B" team (or “B” to “C,” etc.)? First, consider not being a part of an organization that labels kids as such letters if they do. However, having teams of varying levels allows all kids the opportunity to flourish. Kids need to have a balance of success and challenges, and being placed at an appropriate level enables this. If a child is upset about being moved from one team to another, help them realize that what matters most is doing their best and improving. They can do both of these, regardless of the team they are on. Just because they get moved, doesn’t mean they are bad or did poorly. Often times, it is a player who switched with them that exceled and earned his/her way onto our child’s former team – something that our child can also do to following year. If our children focus on learning and improving, over time, they will see their hard work pay off.
Don’t Contribute to the Problem
Sometimes it’s hard to determine who is most responsible for the current toxic tryout culture. Coaches and clubs will blame parents and say that the process is necessary because of the nature of the situation created by families. Parents will say that any contributions they have are due to the environment created by clubs and coaches. Regardless of who’s “fault” it is, everyone involved can help make it better.
As parents, we must refuse to be part of the problem. When we see other families “playing the game” – even if it is the majority of them – it does not mean it is acceptable, and it certainly doesn’t mean we have to do the same.
We will see parents going to every single tryout possible. If asked if they are unhappy with their current team, they will say they are not, but they are just trying to “keep all the options open.” Don’t be this family. If a club has provided our children with a positive experience, we should stick with them. Consistency is the key to long-term success, and showing loyalty will go a long way in ending the toxic tryout culture.
If we are unhappy, be upfront and honest about it, and keep it quiet. If we have been unhappy, hopefully tryouts is not the first time the club is hearing about it – problems must be addressed as they happen to allow the coaches and club an opportunity to make things better. And most importantly, it is more than okay to be unhappy, but it is not okay to drag others into our problem. Don’t try to persuade others to leave, and don’t start gossiping to everyone about our issues. If the decision is made to leave a club, then leave quietly and worry only about our own children’s experience.
As my three-part rant on tryouts comes to a close, I hope that I have helped shed some light on some of the core issues, as well as provide some ways that inspire others to work toward changing our current culture. Everyone involved plays some part in the problem, and if everyone works on handling their role in a more positive, constructive way, we will enable each other to more easily make the changes needed to improve our approach and end the dreaded tryout process.