Coach's Guide To Picking a Team

(AP Photo/Joerg Sarbach)

One of my ex-players is 21 years old and she's just accepted the head coaching position at a middle school in South Carolina. She wrote and said, "Coach Houser, I need some ideas. I feel completely lost. What would you do if you were in my situation?"

Picking the Team In Advance

All of my advice below is supposed to accomplish one thing: Have most of your team picked BEFORE tryouts ever start.

So many deserving girls are cut and so many undeserving girls are kept because the coach didn't take the time to get to know the girls who were trying out. I have some methods where girls can avoid this happening; but, it's so much easier for the coaching staff to prevent these catastrophes than it is for the players.

Why do we pick kids for teams after a 4-hour or a 6-hour tryout? I don't ever want to hear again, "Her tryout was lousy, so she was cut." Teachers don't give semester grades based on what a student does for four hours? The parents of my junior girls don't judge me on how I act for four hours. Thank goodness my wife doesn't judge me during any random 4-hour period!

Use the Offseason to Form Opinions

My local high school varsity volleyball coach has open gyms all spring. She then has a 2-day mini-camp in June. In July, the entire team heads to a team camp out of town. Then as a fundraiser, they host a doubles tournament where most of the kids play. After all this is over, I'm sure the coach will be 95% sure of which girls will make varsity, JV and which will be cut. I do the same thing. So if one solid player has a bad tryout, she'll just have to work her way up from 2nd team. No, she won't get cut.

Don't Guess

Cutting kids may be one of the hardest things you'll ever do. Let's make it easier:

  • Have some open gyms before tryouts and watch the kids

  • If the kids are attending any local camps, go by and watch

  • Talk to the parents, get to know them, and let them get to know you

  • Maybe even video the open gyms and watch the tape later

Why do all this? So that you have a better feel for whom you'd like to have on the team. In your mind, open gyms can be used as "pre-tryouts."

Of course, you will have kids who can't come to these open gyms and will still be good enough to make your team. But you want to know as much about all the girls as you possibly can.

Pre-tryout Checklist

  1. On the first day you meet a prospective player (in the gym, in the hallways, etc.), get her name, phone number, email address, birthday, list of her teachers, etc. Then in the spring, give the teachers a list of names and say, "I'd like to know about their academics and their behavior." Why keep a kid who makes all D's & F's? Or why keep a kid who can't behave in class? OR, a better idea, you may see some good in one of those kids and you can approach the player with, "You either do x and y and z, or I'll have to take your jersey, give it to the manager, and make you the manager."

  2. Email the prospects about anything! Yes, include some thoughts on commitment and dedication and loyalty. But also send the kids birthday internet cards, happy weekend cards, holiday cards, etc. They'll LOVE getting email from the coach!

  3. Email the parents as much info about you, the team, the team's schedule, etc. as you can think of. This email should also include what you expect in the areas of effort & commitment, how long practices will be & how often, how the girls will get to matches, and what reasons you consider excused for missing matches & practices, etc. If you want to see one of mine from this past fall, let me know. This will help you avoid hearing the phrase "I didn't know how long practice was," or "I haven't made up my mind yet," or the famous "I forgot about tryouts".

  4. On the first day of tryouts, get email addresses, birthdays, etc. from the new kids. Send out those emails that these players and their parents have missed. If you have a family that's not on line, have those emails already printed out to hand to parents. WOW, will you look organized!

How Long Should Tryouts Be?

The less you know about your team, the longer the tryout sessions. At one school I taught at, I knew the players so well that there were no varsity tryouts; the girls received invitations to be on the team. But at a school where I was new, I'd be forced to have 4 or 5 days of tryouts. I wouldn't know the girls' games or their personalities at all, so I'd want to see who's willing to work, to commit or to give up. I'd want to see who'll get an attitude, who'll be late and ask to leave early, who'll get mad at the coach, etc.

What to Look For

Look for girls who have those special qualities: good attitudes, willing to sacrifice, love of the sport, commitment, hard work, spirit, has fun, smiling, helping teammates. Those are the girls you want to keep! If they're good athletes, that's gravy. But regardless of their athletic ability, you'll have a nucleus of kids who will bust their butt for you and for the team! And you'll have a great season!!

Don't judge a season by how many you win, but by how much you hate to see it end.

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