Editor’s note: This is the first in a series of four articles that explore the psychology of tryouts. Subsequent articles in the series will look at what young athletes can do to mentally prepare for tryouts; what their coaches and the coaches running the tryouts can do to make the experience as positive as possible; and what parents can do to best support their young athletes in their tryouts.
Meeting the Challenges of Tryouts: Part I
Is there anything more important to a young athlete than tryouts, that first big step toward participating in a league, playing for a team, or joining a sports program? I don’t think so. Why? Well, tryouts are basically the gateway to a child’s athletic goals and dreams.
And, quite frankly, tryouts can be stressful. They’re usually black and white; kids either make it … or they don’t. And if they don’t, they can’t get into the game, so it can feel like those goals and dreams die before they even get a chance to get off the ground.
Because of the importance of tryouts, it’s essential that our young athletes be as prepared as they can be to perform their best. They have to be in shape, of course, and ideally they’ve practiced intensely enough to master the necessary skills required to not just prove they’re worthy of inclusion, but to separate themselves from other young athletes, to stand out among the other competitors vying for the number of slots available.
But having the physical and technical aspects of their sport dialed in is probably not going to be enough. Young athletes also have to be mentally prepared to handle the pressure of needing to perform when it counts, to thrive with coaches judging them and parents cheering for them.
Rising to the occasion in tryouts is no small task for athletes of any age, even at the highest level of sports; Olympic Trials, for instance, are tryouts of sorts. Olympic hopefuls, however, are likely more familiar and comfortable with the challenge of “tryouts” than young athletes who carry the burden of their own hopes and dreams — not to mention the pressure they might feel from their parents. I’ve seen many young athletes who appeared well prepared for tryouts, yet crashed and burned when it came time to perform.
What causes that crash and burn? A number of psychological factors come into play.
One key byproduct of all the practice time a young athlete puts into preparing for a tryout should be a boost in confidence, a belief that they can perform their best and achieve their tryout goals. All of their practice efforts should instill a “can-do” attitude that should set the stage for success.
But when athletes arrive at the tryout venue, that confidence can dwindle as the athletes look around and see so many other athletes who might be bigger and/or appear to be better than they are. This is when the doubts and uncertainty can creep in, and young athletes can turn against themselves and become their own worst enemies.
It’s absolutely essential for young athletes to stay focused on the process at tryouts, with the mind cleared of anything and everything that doesn’t relate to what’s needed to perform their best. That focus might be technical, tactical or mental, but a “process focus” ensures that they pay attention to things that will help them avoid distractions that can prevent them from performing well. A process focus has a simple progression: When young athletes are focused on the process, they are more likely to perform well. And if they perform well, they are more likely to achieve the goals they set for themselves — in the case of tryouts, being selected for the team of their choice.
But the all-or-nothing aspect of tryouts can make it difficult to maintain that healthy process focus because young athletes want make the team so badly, and the mere thought of not making it is downright devastating. What results is that young athletes shift their focus from process to outcome. They’re thinking more about what might happen, both good and bad, than on what they need to do to produce the desired outcome.
A lot of athletes, coaches and parents think that an “outcome focus” is a good thing. You’ve likely heard “eyes on the prize” a million times. But paradoxically, when young athletes focus on the outcome, they’re actually less likely to achieve the results they want. Why? Two reasons.
First, when does the outcome of a tryout occur? At the end, of course. So, if young athletes are focused on the end of the tryout, they aren’t going to be focused on performing their best during the actual tryout. Second, what causes young athletes to get anxious before and during a tryout? Worrying about the outcome, of course, and usually a bad outcome. And this anxiety causes psychological, emotional and physical changes that interfere with their ability to perform their best in the tryouts.
Some nerves are a natural part of young athletes preparing to put themselves to the test in a tryout. The physical changes (e.g., increased heart rate and blood flow) mean that their bodies are getting ready to perform. And some nerves can actually help young athletes perform their best because it gives them a boost of energy, which can increase strength, speed and agility.
But for most young athletes, tryouts are stressful and nerve-wracking experiences. The physical changes go to an extreme in the form of tight muscles, choppy breathing, a pounding heart, and too much adrenaline. Quite simply, nerves make young athletes feel terrible. These nerves are usually caused by pressure they feel (from themselves or others), a lack of confidence, and an outcome focus, contributing to a vicious cycle in which the nerves cause them to lose even more confidence, worry even more, and feel even more pressure to perform well. The end result of excessive nerves at tryouts is a poor performance and a disappointing outcome.
Emotions powerfully influence athletes in many ways, including what they think, how they feel physically, how they respond to coaches and teammates, and, ultimately, how they perform. In turn, the above areas can impact the emotions that young athletes experience before and during tryouts.
Consider the wide range of emotions that young athletes might experience during a tryout, from fear, frustration, anger, disappointment and despair, to excitement, inspiration, joy and pride. Emotions can join with confidence, focus and nerves to create either a vicious cycle that drags down young athletes, or an upward spiral that lifts them higher in a tryout.