Meeting the Challenges of Tryouts: Part III
As I noted in Part I and Part II of this four-part series on Meeting the Challenges of Tryouts, my focus is on what athletes can do to make their tryout experiences as successful and enjoyable as possible. But the athletes themselves aren’t the only ones who impact their tryout efforts. This article, Part III in my series, focuses on the role that coaches play in whether athletes view their tryout as positive experiences that propel them forward in their sports participation, or negative experiences that cause them to lose interest in sports, regardless of whether they achieve their goal of “making it.” There are two groups of coaches who impact the attitudes that athletes bring to the their tryouts. First, the current coaches of the athletes who want to move up to a more competitive team or league. Second, the coaches who run the tryouts. I’ll address each group of coaches directly below.
Particularly for young athletes who are new to tryouts, the attitudes that you, their coaches, have about an upcoming tryout will often determine how they think and feel about, and how they perform, in their tryout.
Leading up to the tryout, if you’re super serious about the importance of the tryout, your athletes will come to see it as a big deal. When you focus on the importance of making it to the next team or league, your athletes will see making it as the only barometer of success — and not making it as a flat-out failure. This perspective will cause your athletes to think a lot about the results of the tryout as it approaches. This emphasis on the outcome of the tryout will distract them from getting as prepared as they can be in the days leading up to it. It also will create doubt, worry, and anxiety about what will happen if they don’t make it. When you pass this attitude onto your athletes, you are setting them up for failure.
In contrast, regardless of who you think has a reasonable chance of having a successful tryout, you can set the tone for how your athletes see the tryout. Your attitudes can set them up for success by having them focus on several key areas that will help them perform to the best of their ability. If, in the runup to the tryout, you establish positive and healthy attitudes about it, your athletes will likely adopt a similar viewpoint.
First, you can start by asking them what their goals are for the tryout. If you believe they can realistically make it to the next level, you can affirm their goals and then immediately refocus them on the process of getting ready by asking them what they need to do to be successful. If you don’t think their goals are realistic, you can gently reshape them to goals that are more achievable or suggest that they simply focus on doing the best they can.
Second, put the tryout in perspective. It is not life or death, and it will not decide their athletic futures. Rather, it is just one step and one challenge in a long journey in their athletic lives.
Third, in the period leading up to the tryout, you can emphasize their determination and hard work, and praise their improvements. In doing so, you further motivate them to do their best and you build their confidence by highlighting what they’re doing well.
Fourth, you can keep their practice time in preparation for the tryout light and fun. This focus will keep them relaxed and free them from the stress that often accompanies an upcoming tryout. With this approach, you won’t guarantee they’ll make the team, but you can pretty much ensure that they enter the tryout feeling motivated, confident and relaxed, which, by the way, will increase their chances of performing their best and achieving their tryout goals.
Finally, you can further redirect their focus away from the result of the tryout by couching it as a chance to learn and grow as an athlete. Yes, tryouts have a you’re-in-or-out finality. At the same time, they can be incredible experiences that showcase athletes’ strengths and highlight areas in need of improvement that can fuel their determination and future efforts in their sport.
On the day of the tryout, as the coaches running the show, you are now the biggest influencers on whether the athletes participating will have a good or bad experience, regardless of whether they make it to the next level.
As I noted in Part I of my series, most athletes are almost certainly going to approach their tryout with doubt, worry and anxiety. Many will view the tryout as a referendum on their capabilities as an athlete. With this “life or death” attitude, having a successful tryout becomes less likely.
If you exacerbate the already-fragile psyches of many of the tryout participants, things will certainly go from bad to worse for them. If you’re too serious — talk about the long odds of being selected, come across as harsh with them, or in any way just plain suck the fun out of the tryout — you not only set many up for failure, but you make the tryout a truly aversive experience that might very well drive them from your sport.
You want to do everything you can to ease their concerns and instill in them a positive attitude toward the tryout that will support their motivation, confidence and efforts. Importantly, you want to redirect their focus away from the decisions that will come at the end of the tryout and focus them on what they need to do to give their best effort and perform their best during the tryouts.
Here are a few things you can do to make the tryouts you’re leading positive experiences for the young athletes who attend:
First, don’t talk about the who, what, why and how of selections at the introduction/welcome to the tryout. That will just make the young athletes (and their parents!) more worried and anxious. Rather, provide that information to parents, coaches and athletes by email or on your organization’s web site before the day of the tryout. In these communications, also establish clear expectations for appropriate parent behavior during the day of the tryout. Ask them to support your efforts to make the tryout a great experience for their kids instead of a “do or die” test.
Second, on the day of the tryout, set a positive tone before it gets started by emphasizing a perspective of long-term development rather than a “make it or fail” mentality. Tell the young athletes that the tryout is an opportunity to challenge themselves and identify their strengths and what they will need to work on, apart from the outcome.
Second, establish goals for the young athletes of fun, a great effort, and a learning experience. Don’t talk about the end of the day at all.
Third, make sure your tryout “assistant” coaches are aligned with your messages: Keep the atmosphere fun and light.
Fourth, in keeping with the attitude of the tryout being a learning experience as much as anything, have the coaches provide instructional feedback after every “test” the young athletes take.
Finally, your goal at the conclusion of the tryout is to have one group of excited young athletes who were fortunate to make the cut, and another group who were disappointed, but motivated more than ever to get back out there to improve so they can “make it” next season.