Picking the Team Without Crushing the Dream

Not every young athlete can make the team. But there are ways for coaches to break the news without turning children off of sports.

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Fostering a lifelong commitment to physical activity is an important goal, and one that is coloured by the formative years of childhood. When it comes to competitive sports, not every child can make the team, but what happens to the children who don’t make the roster? Are there ways that coaches can break the news that don’t discourage kids from staying active or from trying out again next season?

To find out more about best practices, researchers from the University of Alberta and University of Saskatchewan set out to interview 52 young athletes who didn’t make the team and their parents. They also surveyed 1,667 coaches and athletic directors.

Study leaders Professors Lauren Sulz, Louise Humbert, and Doug Gleddie wrote about their findings and recommendations on the Canadian Sport for Life blog.

They warn that not making the team has more than just the physical consequences of inactivity, after losing the opportunity to participate in practices and competitions. Young athletes who didn’t make the team also reported losing out on bonding experiences, growing apart from their friends, and being forced to seek out new social circles. For athletes who had previously made the team, being cut can even shake their sense of identity.

When coaches failed to provide specific feedback for improvement, young athletes often assumed that being cut amounted to predictions of future failure. Most would not try out for the same sport again.

The authors compiled a list of four recommendations for coaches who are hosting try-outs:

  1. Immediacy — Don’t make athletes wait: try to make your decisions as close to the final tryout as possible.
  2. Privacy — Don’t disclose the results in front of the group.
  3. Encouragement — Provide options for continuing to improve and participate through other community organizations.
  4. Expectations — Be clear up front what you are looking for and the process of making the team.

Young athletes who participated in the interviews reported that face-to-face discussions with coaches were the best way to break the news. They had the following four recommendations for how to broach the subject:

  1. Start the discussion by immediately telling athletes the outcome of the tryout — Young athletes appreciated coaches being direct over providing false hope by starting with a positive. Open with a simple statement like “I am sorry you did not make the team.”
  2. Give specific reasons for why athletes didn’t make the team — Avoiding generic explanations encourages athletes to work on their weaknesses.
  3. Offer feedback that athletes can take action on — When athletes believe that they were cut from the team for reasons beyond their control, such as not being tall enough for the team, they tend to believe they are incapable of playing that sport and don’t try out again.
  4. Write your feedback down — While writing this information down takes time, athletes reported that they were emotional and often forgot what was discussed. This allows athletes to go back through the action items, and also gives parents a clear picture.

Sports can build character, friendships, and a passion for physical activity that can last a lifetime. Beyond whether kids make competitive teams or not, it’s important to handle these formative experiences the right way, and to provide encouragement and more opportunities to stay active.

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Karyn Ho is a science animator and engineer who thrives at the interface between science, engineering, medicine, and art. She earned her MScBMC (biomedical communications) and PhD (chemical engineering and biomedical engineering) at the University of Toronto. Karyn is passionate about using cutting edge discoveries to create dynamic stories as a way of supporting innovation, collaboration, education, and informed decision making. By translating knowledge into narratives, her vision is to captivate people, spark their curiosity, and motivate them to share what they learned.