Making the Team

How do your coaches decide who "makes the team?" Adding a concrete rating system can go a long way toward making the process less stressful and more objective.

By John Carver

John Carver is the Head Baseball Coach and former Head Boys’ Basketball Coach at Dover (N.H.) High School.

Athletic Management, 16.4, June/July 2004, http://www.momentummedia.com/articles/am/am1604/makingtheteam.htm

Tryouts are trying—for players, coaches, and even administrators. Unless you have a no-cut policy, the period when teams are selected can be one of the most draining parts of the season.

Many players tense up during tryouts. They fear they won’t have enough time to show their skills or that one bad drill could sink their chances to make the team. Meanwhile, members of the coaching staff often find themselves disagreeing over the relative strengths and weaknesses of players with little to back their cases beyond, "I think he’s better than that." And administrators often face a pile of phone messages from angry parents the morning after cuts are announced. But there are ways to make it a little easier for everyone involved.

Three years ago, we developed an evaluation system for the baseball and boys’ basketball teams at Dover High School that we hoped would address some of the weaknesses in our old method. With a few adjustments, the framework of this system can be adapted to fit any sport.

Our main goal in developing this system was to reduce the stress on both players and coaches. We also wanted a system that would:

• Allow players to understand their role if selected.

• Allow players an opportunity to work on areas of weakness if not selected.

• Allow parents to better understand why their child was not selected.

• Allow the coaching staff to better understand the program’s weaknesses by identifying them during selection week.

• Create continuity of thought among the coaching staff.

We did this by adding an objective structure to our process. As a coaching staff, we decided which areas were most important to us. These included skills (such as command of the strike zone or shooting accuracy) and intangible qualities (such as coachability). We then devised a grading scale that we use to rate players in each of those qualities.

To show players that the process had changed, we explained how the new procedure would work and began to refer to the evaluation period as "selection week" as opposed to "tryouts" or "cut week." We emphasized that we were not rejecting someone but instead choosing someone else, which has helped to reduce player anxiety. Although our new system has not eliminated all the challenges of evaluating a large group of players in a short period of time, it has made players and coaches more relaxed and confident while also meeting our other goals.

DRILLS & SKILLS
We begin selection week by splitting prospective players into two groups: players who are eligible for our freshman team, and those eligible for junior varsity and varsity. In other cases, coaches may find it more efficient to separate returning players from newcomers. All athletes practice each day, and each group is put through the same drills and skills tests. The selection process ends on the third day for junior varsity and varsity athletes, who we are already familiar with, and on the fifth day for the freshmen.

For larger teams, splitting the players into two groups drops the number of athletes practicing at one time to reasonable levels. For all teams, it helps to reduce the anxiety for the newcomers since a freshman trying out for the first time won’t have to do drills with a returning All-State player. And by having the newcomers practice for five days, we get a longer look at the players we’re least familiar with.

We use a rating scale of 1 to 4 for each skill area, and record the rating on an evaluation sheet. The student-athlete receives a 1 if he is below freshman ability in the category. A 4 means the student-athlete is a varsity-caliber player in that category. The coaches meet after each practice throughout the week to discuss each student-athlete and compare notes.

Our ratings go beyond what we see during practice. We also rate each player on academic eligibility, improvement over time at our school, participation with outside teams, other athletic endeavors, and the number of players needed at that position or in that class year.

RATING SYSTEM
Simply asking coaches to rate players on a 1 to 4 scale can produce varying scores based on each coach’s expectations. So, to make evaluations consistent, we devised objective guidelines in each of the specified areas for our coaches to follow. We were as detailed and comprehensive as possible in developing these guidelines so we can remain as objective as possible in our evaluations. (See "Criteria" below for some examples of our guidelines.)

We add the subtotals for each area to get a cumulative total for each player. These totals are a large part of our decision-making process, but the numbers do not dictate our selections. We also use the following guidelines:

1. Players with academic question marks do not make the team.

2. Seniors may only play varsity.

3. Juniors selected for the JV team are projected starters for varsity the next year or are expected to provide leadership for younger student-athletes.

4. Sophomores and freshmen are selected for varsity only if they are going to start at their positions.

5. Only freshmen are considered for the freshman team.

6. Specialists receive extra consideration when filling the final few roster spots. For example, we may choose a three-point field goal specialist or left-handed pitcher to fill the final spot, even if other players rated higher.

7. We avoid having two seniors at the same position if they don’t play other positions, such as a starting and back-up shortstop.

8. Players who have previously played in high school receive consideration over those who have not (except freshmen).

9. Multiple-sport athletes are favored over single-sport athletes.

After the second day of practice, we begin to set the rosters. The first several selections are usually pretty obvious. We all know the best shooter from the year before or the All-State junior who is a lock to make the team again. We also know those student-athletes who pose a safety risk to themselves or others and will not be selected.

On the third day, we ask each teacher about every player they have in class. The teachers and players know we’ll be doing this. We ask how the player is doing in the class, if he is behaving, if he’s reaching his academic potential, and if not, why not. I also receive some word-of-mouth input from teachers since I’m on the faculty as well.

Next, we address the program’s strengths and needs. In baseball, for example, some years we’ll have an abundance of hitting, but be weak on the mound. Or we’ll have plenty of infielders, but a big question mark at catcher. Once we’ve decided where our holes are, we can begin to fill them appropriately.

We usually have seven or eight players we are considering for the final three or four spots, and they tend to be athletes we are less familiar with. So, during the final workout, we focus our attention on the players in question performing the skills in question. For example, we might work on hitting an outside pitch to the opposite field or base running, if that’s what our team needs for the upcoming year or that’s where we the most questions about a player. We don’t single out the players in question, but we are watching them more closely.

Final decisions are made immediately after the last practice, with our evaluation forms serving as the starting point for comparing two similar players. However, the final decision may not follow the rankings precisely since intangibles can separate one player from another, and needs in one area will trump talent in another. We also consider the overall makeup of the team. Is there proper leadership? Is this going to be a rebuilding year? Will the bench players accept their roles?

For example, one year in basketball we had a freshman shooting guard who was a 4 in almost every category. But we had several seniors returning and were facing a rebuilding situation. So we decided to keep the freshman at the freshman and junior varsity levels to create cohesion with his teammates, even though numerically he was a varsity-level player. The seniors all made contributions to the rebuilding effort that season, and the freshman was a major contributor to the varsity team the following year.

We’ve also had some kids earn a 4 as shooters, but a 2 defensively. They didn’t play varsity, even though they had some varsity ability. And in baseball one year, when we didn’t have a single infielder who rated a 3 in fielding, we looked more closely at the intangibles, such as coachability, leadership, and attitude to make our selections.

SPREADING THE NEWS
Once the decisions are made, we don’t post lists of who was selected for each team or who wasn’t. Instead, I meet one-on-one with each player for three to five minutes. Those not selected are told why they did not make the team. I go over their evaluation form during that discussion and mention leagues and clinics they can play in or attend to improve.

When breaking down the detailed evaluations, I can show a player that he rebounded well, but had problems shooting off the dribble, or that he had a good arm in the infield, but had problems turning the double play. For those who are selected, we review their evaluations and explain our expectations for the season.

Of course, some parents will want to know why their child didn’t make the team. I provide parents a copy of their child’s evaluation on request. I also give the evaluations to the athletic director so he’ll be ready for any phone calls he might receive from unhappy parents.

I will meet with any parent who has questions, but I make it clear I will not discuss why other players made the team. If they tell me, "I know my Steve is better than Johnny," then I tell them the discussion is over. Otherwise, I try to address their concerns.

Although meeting with each player separately is time-consuming and can be emotionally draining for me, it shows respect for the student-athlete. I don’t want them to go away without having received an explanation for why they weren’t selected. I want the student-athlete to know that I made the final decision. And if they need to be mad at somebody, I want them to be mad at me.

Despite the potential for hurt feelings, the meetings are usually pretty pleasant. Typically, there’s only one player and one parent each year who get upset. The kids usually know before the meeting whether they’re going to make the team, because they’ve seen the other players perform. While we can’t make being cut hurt any less, we feel this system has helped make the selection process more predictable, more consistent, and, most important, less stressful for players and coaches alike.

A version of this article appeared in our sister publication, Coaching Management.


Sidebar: Sample Evaluation Criteria
Here are some examples of the criteria we use at Dover High School to grade players during tryouts.

Basketball – Ball Handling
4: Does not begin dribble before looking to pass or shoot, does not end dribble unless shooting or passing. Can cross-over; jab step to each side; dribble behind back, through legs, and is equally strong with both hands. Keeps and wants the ball in his hands against the press, and won’t put the ball in a non-ballhandler’s hands under pressure.

3: Inconsistently begins dribble before looking to pass or shoot, or ends dribble without shooting or passing. Can cross over; jab step to each side; dribble behind back and through legs, but is not equally strong with both hands. Wants the ball in his hands against the press, but occasionally puts the ball in a non-handler’s hands under pressure.

2: Consistently begins dribble before looking to pass or shoot, or ends dribble without shooting or passing. Can crossover from strong to weak hand; jab step to each side; and may dribble behind the back or through the legs, but is not equally strong with both hands. Avoids the ball against press and puts the ball in non-ballhandler’s hands under pressure.

1: Lacks many of the basic fundamentals of a high school ballhandler.


Baseball—Hitting
4: Is able to position himself in the box correctly. Makes adjustments for each pitcher and the count. Can consistently hit the opposite way. Can suicide, drag, and sacrifice bunt. Understands the team’s offensive philosophy. Has pull power and good bat speed. Recognizes different pitches at the plate. Hits top half of the ball.

3: Is able to position himself in the box correctly. Is inconsistent hitting the opposite way. Can suicide and sacrifice bunt. Has some pull power. Can recognize different pitches from the dugout. Makes some adjustments for the count. Hits top half of the ball inconsistently.

2: Has some pull power. Makes some adjustments for the pitcher and count. Very inconsistent going the opposite way, but attempts it. Can sacrifice bunt. Has appropriate bat speed.

1: Lacks many of the basic fundamentals of a high school hitter.


Intangibles
4. Was a varsity player in the past. Welcomes coaching. Meets his academic potential. Comes highly recommended by faculty and staff. Plays in challenging summer leagues. Has attended all meetings. Is not going on vacation. Plays multiple sports. Is not pushed out by numbers at his position.

3: Can fill open position. Has playing experience in the program. Is coachable. Doing okay academically. Is recommended by faculty and staff. Plays in summer leagues. Plays one other sport. May or may not be going on vacation. Is not pushed out by numbers.

2: Played in youth leagues. Plays no other sport. Planning on vacation. May be pushed out by numbers. Not well recommended by faculty and staff.

1: No position available, going on vacation, no experience, not coachable, not recommended at all by faculty and staff.