The worst part of coaching basketball at the youth and high school levels is making cuts after tryouts. The next worst part is informing a player that was hoping to be on one team that he or she is not on that team. At the outset and conclusion of a tryout, I always try to explain to players that I admire their courage to tryout. All our heroes from Lincoln to Disney have met failure and eventually became stronger as a result. They also at some point have been told no by someone and continued on anyway. I share this message with adolescents and younger players, but it can fall on deaf ears. And often the families of these individuals lose track of this perspective as well.
Inevitably there will be complaints and not every player and family is going to be happy after teams are made. As a coach, accepting that fact going into the tryout will help with the emotional toll of the fallout. In the end, all we can do as coaches is put together the most fair and efficient tryout possible. Here are some suggestions to help coaches conduct a fair tryout.
Logistics of Tryouts
How Long Should Tryouts Last
Depending on the facilities in your community, the amount of time to conduct tryouts could be restricted. I always like the idea of two days of tryouts for two reasons. First of all, I think it strips away the possibility of a family or player suggesting that a bad day got in the way. In my experience, bad days are a poor excuse. Players that strut back on defense or take a contested shot when a teammate is open for a better shot are making selfish decisions. Bad days do not account for that. That said, it is possible that a player is legitimately sick or mentally not in the right place.
The other reason I think it is ideal for two days of tryouts is that you get a sense for a player’s commitment level. If the player only attends one tryout without notifying anyone or providing a great excuse, it is a red flag. The player might be talented, but a lack of commitment usually outweighs talent.
In terms of the time of the tryout, I do not think more than an hour is necessary. I recently ran a tryout that lasted forty-five minutes. As a result of the short duration, the players were extremely cooperative when we transitioned to something new. And since we had four different grade levels trying out consecutively, it saved all evaluators an hour.
Know Names, All Names
Buying nametags for all players will only cost a few dollars and helps all evaluators. When parents go to drop off their child, someone should greet them and give them a nametag upon entering the gym. As the tryout is being conducted, coaches can avoid saying “you” when they give feedback or directions and be specific. Players will feel more valued too hearing their name called.
Coaches will always know certain players before the tryout begins. By only knowing these players, there is a subtle message being sent to the players the coach does not know that they are less valued. It is these players who are new to the program who are often most vulnerable. Trying out for a team or trying to make a good first impression in any walk of life is stressful. Having the nametag in front of them lets coaches off the hook for repeatedly forgetting and eases a players mind to know that they are treated as a person.
Try to Remain Objective with Players You Already Know
Nametags are a great initial step to help evaluators remain objective. Evaluators should take it another step further by avoiding over the top affection for any player or players for a couple reasons. First of all, these players might eventually be cut if their ability does not measure up. Players should not be misled into thinking that because the coach is “their friend” that they are a shoe in to make it. In fact, coaches can say that despite making the team in previous years at the outset of tryouts we cannot guarantee anyone’s spot. You do not want players to be in fear, but the situation requires honesty.
Secondly, on the flip side players of less experience will want assurance that the process is fair. Parents love to claim that politics were involved in the tryout process. Often times these families have strong evidence to support the politics claim. By remaining objective toward all players, coaches can take one small part of that evidence out of the equation.
Eliminate Non-Competitive Drills
Teaching is a temptation for all coaches at tryouts. The younger the level, the greater the temptation. Coaches must remember it is a tryout not a practice. Most of the time should be spent letting the players showcase their abilities. By making the tryout game-focused, it also gives players a better experience on night one. Players are trying to make the team, but they also want to know if the team is worthy of their time.
In order to ensure a game-like experience, every drill should feature an offense and a defense. I like to start out with one on one. Five on five can be a little overwhelming for evaluators out of the gate. You do not know exactly who to watch and often times the very best and very worst standout. It is the middle players that are most important to evaluate. In one on one, it gives coaches a much narrower focus to consider.
One on One Drills
The drill above is one that I commonly use. It requires very little explanation regardless of a player’s experience and incorporates skills that can be applied in games. Players need to use the body as part of dribbling. If players are moving around cones, this skill goes unmeasured. We also gain an understanding of speed and acceleration that each player possesses. As players go to finish, you can discover if players have creativity or struggle to score in the flow of game action. For defenders, we learn if they can disrupt shots and the basketball IQ with regards to fouls.
After the 1 on 1 chase drill, I like to see how players do with the one on one two dribbles drill. Coaches typically allocate five minutes of constant dribbling. I am among them. If we are not also teaching them to dribble efficiently, these players will develop bad habits. We will make exceptions to the rule, but generally we want players to take no more than three dribbles. This drill allows us to see how efficiently players are able to use a dribble. If they take their first dribble with their feet motionless, it is an opportunity to offer feedback. How a player listens and then makes the effort to change, will tell you a lot about how coachable they are.
Additionally, this drill gives players a chance to demonstrate motor. I let them play until the defense gets the rebound. I want to see what offensive players do not relent after missing a shot. It also is a good time to see how the defense reacts to get position for the defensive rebound.
In both drills, coaches should emphasize that the same two players should not go one on one twice in a row. You want to see how tall players do against shorter players, quick players do against slower players, etc. Mismatches will happen in games. Knowing what players can still be effective despite a perceived disadvantage is important to consider.
I chose to use a 2 on 1 drill, but other drills could be implemented as well. I like disadvantage drills because at the youth level most points will be scored on lay-ups. Most of the lay-ups are not going to be uncontested. Players need to demonstrate their ability to make crisp passes and timely passes. Decision making is an element of the game that usually is enhanced by experience. What coaches fail to realize is that sometimes experience outside of basketball can be helpful. Players that are familiar with other sports where defenders are obstacles could thrive despite never playing. Even kids that just play a ton of Monkey in the Middle at recess could prove to be effective.
Once again, a player’s motor is tested. For the defender that is at a disadvantage, I want to see how he or she anticipates the ball moving ahead of it actually being moved.
3 on 3 Games
There are many ways to conduct small sided games with three on three. I told players the only rule was a maximum of three dribbles. Communication, ball screens, post play, and other elements could also be the focus of a three on three game. What three on three does that one on one does not accomplish is force players to move without the ball. For the majority of a game, players will not possess the ball. I want to see how they get open and how they get their teammates open.
Defensively, coaches can get a sense for a player’s IQ. In one on one, the defense was strictly relying on athleticism and height. In three on three, coaches can learn how well players get in the right position and maintain good positioning.
Playing Full Court 5 on 5
Ultimately, this is the destination for the players and coaches. The evaluators should focus on players conditioning and effort during this part of the tryout. Given that five on five is the last agenda item, evaluators can shift their focus on bubble players. Remember, if the entire tryout was played five on five, finding these bubble players would be more akin to finding a needle in a haystack.
Who Should Evaluate the Players
At youth levels, generally parents are involved as coaches. Ideally, the community can find a coach without a horse in the race, but that is a difficult request for someone to give so much time on a voluntary basis. If parents are involved in the process exclusively, picking the teams will result in tension one way or another. Either the parents will choose players that are friends with their child or be fair and get accused of being impartial.
That is why it is essential to have many evaluators present. At the tryout my community just conducted, we had a minimum of six people evaluating each group that did not have a child trying out for that team. Among that group were three high school coaches that did not have a child in any of the grades.
One coach I know even pays rival high school coaches to come to the youth tryouts and evaluate the players. It is an extreme step that could hinder the process since the coaches know nothing from a character perspective on these kids. At the very least though, communities are willing to pay this price because nobody can accuse anyone of being impartial.
How to Measure Players at Tryouts
There are numerous rubrics on the Internet (here’s one). I have used some in the past, but overall I find rubrics to be too specific. Keep in mind, that the length of tryout periods is generally on the shorter side. In our community, we only evaluated players for forty-five minutes. Perhaps this is too short of a time, but I actually think not much more is needed. The top six to eight players can be readily identified in the first ten minutes just by the eye test. Given the short length of time, going to incredible detail for fifteen different skills is not appropriate.
I also do not think that ranking players on a 1 to 4 scale is the optimal way to measure players. Let’s say two players both receive a 3 rating on dribbling. Does that imply that the two players are equally adept at dribbling? I think most coaches would argue that there are tiers in which players can fall, but even within a single tier we can find margins between two players. It would serve coaches better to rank players on whatever skills they deem to be most valuable. In that regard, there is a clearer hierarchy established. Coaches can also see where the current roster is deficient and take on players that offer a skill that the team lacks.
What I would Measure
I would ultimately pick three things to measure a player on.
Current Skill Level
First, I would measure players on their current skill level. The essential element of current skill level is decision-making. In one-on-one games this shows up if players were able to finish and how they were able to finish. During the two-on-one or disadvantage drills, I would want to see when players decided to pass and what the rotation looked like. During three on three I would want to know what players did without the ball on offense and if they could simultaneously guard ball and man. Finally, in five on five I would want to know if players knew how to find open space and had the conditioning to get there fast.
Second, I would measure players on their natural abilities. This includes athleticism, motor, and height. There are some elements of the game that coaches can teach, but these three are either impossible or extremely difficult to teach. The younger the player, the more that these raw abilities should be valued since basketball concepts will come with time. In all of these drills, a player’s quickness to run up court or accelerate in short distances is apparent. These players have the opportunity to demonstrate a nose for the ball in rebounding and their strength to throw crisp passes or overpower a defender in the post.
Third, I would measure their character. This is where the whole “politics” excuse does show up. Unfortunately though, politics is a huge part of building cohesive teams. I have encouraged young players to take up basketball in the past because they were really high character individuals. Developing skill will only happen if a player wants to develop the skill. On rare occasions, I can excuse a player not having skill and natural abilities because I know their character will make the team better. They will accept being the eleventh player on the team better than a player who is tremendously skilled or has natural gifts because of their character. None of that is to say that these players (particularly in the younger grades) cannot develop into more than the eleventh player. That is how guys like Tom Brady who did not play on his freshman football team emerge.