Youth sports tryouts test stamina and resilience for parents as well as athletes. As coaches evaluate players to decide who will be on the roster for a coming season, tensions and questions mount. Wear last year’s uniform, to look like part of the gang? Or is that too presumptuous? Should parents talk to the coach beforehand? And who’s that kid I’ve never seen before playing my kid’s position?
Parents can’t control a tryout’s outcome. But experts say they can help children prepare for this baldly judgmental moment by offering a steadying hand and maintaining perspective. Tryout season doesn’t have to be all elation or despondence. Despite the nerves and potential disappointments, there can be positive sides to learning how to manage expectations and performing under pressure, even for players who don’t earn a spot.
Tryouts are a “really cutthroat time of year,” says Troy Richardson, president of Southern Maryland Velocity fast pitch softball in La Plata, Md. Kids who are shoo-ins for a team and kids who know they’re long shots suffer the least during evaluations, says Amy Baltzell, who is the president of the Association of Applied Sports Psychology and a clinical associate professor at Boston University. It’s those who have no idea what will happen who suffer most. “It’s most difficult for the kids who are in between,” she says. “With more uncertainty comes more distress.” These players need to allow themselves to recognize nervousness and anxiety, she says, without getting distracted by these emotions. “It’s not about whether you feel it, it’s about how you handle it. Can you stay playing soccer when those feelings are coming up?”
Parents, hoping to help their children, may be tempted to reach out to a coach. Knowing more about a player seems like it could help coaches understand her strengths before she’s even tied her cleats. But Richardson cautions against heaping praise upon players before a tryout, because the more a parent builds up a child, the less likely a coach may be to believe the hype. Also, it’s unfair to the player, who might not be having her best day.
“A parent will tell me how great their kid is — she’s hitting home runs, she’s throwing 65 [miles per hour]. What have they just done to their kid? When that kid shows up in front of me, she’s not throwing 65, she’s throwing 45. Their child probably had no idea that it’s being done,” he says.
Watching children strive for a goal knowing heartbreak may follow racks parents’ nerves. But, Baltzell advises, they should remain as calm as possible. After the tryout, parents should consider their reaction to the results, whether their athlete has made the team or been cut. The response should not focus on the outcome. Rather, she says, ask, “Did you try as hard as you could? Were you able to focus and do the best you could? I’m proud of you no matter what, then.”
Balance is key, many believe. Jeffrey Landis, who lives in the District, says his fourth-grade daughter is a soccer-team-tryout veteran. He says she might get nervous before evaluations, so his family focuses on broader lessons. “We tell her just do your best, work hard. And if you make a lower level of the team, that’s okay too. Then it’s not this all-encompassing event.”
But what about the kids who don’t make it at all? No one likes being rejected, and coaches hate to pass along bad news to kids who didn’t rate a jersey. “The worst part of my job is ordering uniforms, collecting money and telling kids they didn’t make my team,” Richardson says.
Honesty, Richardson says, can help players manage those disappointments and plan their next move. He recommends forthright discussions, even when those conversations are difficult. “Are they the hardest working kid you’ve ever seen, and God did not give them the talent to be better than number 8? That’s a life lesson. Life just isn’t fair, pal,” he says. But he offers hope, reminding players that they can find their own ways to be competitive, and maybe succeed next time around. “You can outwork him, you can out-hustle him,” he says.
Players learn key lessons through the tryout process, says Michael Lavorel, of Bethesda, Md. His two sons, 15 and 11, play travel soccer, and he coaches at the rec level. Lavorel says his sons’ travel program encourages kids who are cut to come back the next year and keep playing soccer in the meantime. He’s seen players deemed unready one season improve enough to make a team the following year.
Not only athletic stress affects tryouts and their results. They take on added importance when parents and players may feel social pressure when not all the members of a group make a team. Carpools disband, and someone stays home from a fun trip based on a travel tournament. Players may see friends left behind. Lavorel’s eldest son made a team that some of his friends did not, and his son knew to encourage them anyway. “He understood how to deal with that as a friend, and say you’re going to make it next year. Just keep trying,” Lavorel says.
Baltzell advises a long view, and remembering larger issues at play. For one, many talented athletes lack resources even to try out for expensive club or travel teams; according to a 2017 article in Time magazine, America’s $15 billion youth-sports industry has grown by 55 percent since 2010. Also, she says that too often kids don’t know why they have been cut. Coaches should give each rejected player information about why his or her performance didn’t make the grade this time, so he or she can improve. “I think that really needs to be in place if we want to have better sport in the United States,” she says.
Richardson agrees and says he gives feedback to players he doesn’t choose. For example, he might advise a player to spend some time playing recreational ball to gain experience. “I just try to put myself in that position as a kid — and it’s hard to do — but keep in touch with that.”
Tryout stress is part of selective sports. But parents can use the season to convey important messages about commitment, risk-taking, and courage. “Try to see that there’s an opportunity for your child,” says Baltzell, “and try to be supportive and encouraging whether they make it or not. Have it be about their effort as opposed to making it. If you can help cultivate pride in that, then they might not make this team, but that kind of mental approach will give them much more likelihood to make more teams in the future, if you’re more steady and encouraging of effort and focus instead of success.”
Eliza McGraw is a Washington writer. She is the author of “Here Comes Exterminator!,” a book about the 1918 Kentucky Derby winner.
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