Spring and early summer usually bring about an annual rite of passage in youth sports: TRYOUTS! They can be a time of great joy, or tremendous disappointment. Tryouts can be a time filled with pressure, stress, politics and many of the other unsavory aspects of youth sports. They can also be a time where a player sees years of hard work and dedication pay off.

Let me just say it: I hate tryouts! Tryouts were always my least favorite part of running elite-level soccer programs. It was always a time when many kids had their dreams shattered, were overcome with disappointment, and were ready to quit. As a coach I always dreaded making the selections, knowing how much it would devastate a young athlete. I knew I would get it wrong from time to time, and that usually someone was hurt in the process.

discouraged athleteTryouts can bring out all the good, and all the bad, that is youth sports. Today I want to share some advice about tryouts. If you are reading this, you probably know families and athletes who have gone through a tough time during tryout season, and perhaps even walked away from a sport because of it. Maybe it was even you or your family. This article is for everyone with a tryout story, both good and bad, and I want to start with one of my own that I share in my book Changing the Game.

This story is about a former player of mine, whom I will call Zach.  Zach was a small yet exceedingly talented player, and he was devastated that he was put on the club’s second tier team and not the top one at age 14. It was not an easy decision for the coaching staff, but we ultimately made it in the best long term interests of the player. That certainly did not make it any easier on Zach.

Zach’s parents asked me and his coach to meet with him, for he told them after tryouts he was ready to quit soccer. In the meeting, I explained to him that while he was technically and tactically ready to take the next step, I was worried that his physical stature would not allow him to use his skill and guile. I was worried that going from the top player on the second team to the sixteenth player on our “A” team was not the right move for him at that time. I explained to him that in one year he would be ready, for he would catch up physically, and then his ability would shine through.

Thankfully, after our talk, and because of his loving and sensible parents, Zach stuck it out on the second team for another season. The next year, he was selected to the top team and quickly established himself as a top player, not only on the team, but in the entire state. Three years later, he was the starting central midfielder on a top ACC Men’s College Soccer team as a freshman! All he needed was the patience to develop competence in all aspects of his game and an environment that allowed him to do so. He also needed to overcome the disappointment of not making his desired team at tryouts, and use it to motivate himself to push harder. Zach’s story is an inspiring one and well worth sharing.

I also like to share this story because in today’s sports scene, we are so concerned with making cuts, picking all stars, and tracking “elite players” at younger and younger ages that we often think the sky is falling if our child does not make the “A” team at 9 years old. But it certainly is not!

The problem in American youth sports is we select today’s best kids to win now, instead of the players who might help us win tomorrow. We then tell these young kids to specialize or else we will take away their spot on the team, in spite of the detrimental affects of early sports specialization. And guess what happens? Many of these early stars shine brightly, and then fizzle!

Too many parents and coaches lose sight of the fact that stats show that only about 10 percent of elite 10-year-old athletes are still elite at 18. Only eight percent of Nobel Prize winners and world champions were child prodigies. The elite sports world is full of star athletes who specialized late, or not at all. There are many, most famously Michael Jordan, who got cut. In fact, the only thing that early success guarantees is … early success.

In the new paperback version of his fantastic book The Sports Gene: Inside the Science of Extraordinary Athletic Performance, author David Epstein updates his earlier findings with some extraordinary stories of elite competitors who were not elementary school stars in their sport. Did you know two-time NBA MVP Steve Nash got his first basketball at age 13? He was quite a soccer player, but then fell in love with basketball and the rest is history.
Epstein also cites research showing that in sports ranging from running to cycling to tennis to baseball, future elites actually practiced less in their chosen sport than those who did not reach elite status! Only in their mid-teen years did they focus and start accumulating the practice hours that took them past many of their peers. From Steve Nash to Roger Federer, this pattern repeats itself over and over. While we love to celebrate the chosen few like Tiger Woods who make it to the top, far more of today’s sport stars were multi-sport athletes who played a lot of pickup games, developed athletically though multi-sport backgrounds, and used their superior athleticism and drive to become elite in their late teens (pp 295-298).

As the parent of a young athlete, it is up to you to provide your child with perspective. If they have a successful tryout, great, but remind them that early success is no guarantee of a future place on the team. Only hard work, dedication, and love of the game will give them a good shot of continued participation.

If this was a disappointing tryout for your child, tell them about Zach, tell him about Michal Jordan, tell him that getting cut from a team does not make or break you as an athlete; what you do next does. Find the good, set some goals, and if he really loves his sport, help him prove everyone wrong over the next 12 months.

Coaches, I have sat in your seat, and I know that for loving, caring coaches, this time of year can be very tough. Be honest with your players, take the time to sit down with the ones you have disappointed, and challenge them to prove you wrong, to get better. Demonstrate that their worth to you, and to society, is not as an athlete, but what they bring to the table as a person. Don’t just be a coach and a person who collects a check and says “tough luck, better luck next time.” Be a person of significance in that athlete’s life. If your message gets through, I guarantee that the following year, that kid is the exact type of person you want on your team!

In the end, we all know kids like Zach, and as parents and coaches we need to do our part and help keep them in the game! We also know kids that may not be a great fit in their current sport, but can be guided toward another that better suits them athletically. We can do this by taking the time to sit down with a disappointed child, and share one of our experiences of disappointment and supposed failure. We can share how it made us stronger, and how we overcame the obstacles and eventually succeeded.

I also ask that you please pass the story below along to any families or coaches you know who are struggling with tryouts. Encourage them to be patient, and remind them that becoming a high-performing athlete is not a sprint; it is a marathon. The best athletes all have stories of overcoming failure, will they?

It may be tryout season, but we can make sure that tryouts are only the beginning of the story, and not the end.

The world is full of kids like Zach, for whom today’s setbacks can set the stage for tomorrow’s achievement.

They just need us to point them in the right direction.

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