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Try This At Tryouts

When I was a high school athlete, tryouts used to make me a bit nervous. How will I play? Who else will show up? Will the coaches like me? What I didn't realize was that tryouts are just as hard for coaches- maybe harder! It's not easy to organize sessions, evaluate players, and pick teams, all while trying to be fair to each player trying out.

Here are some practical tips for high school coaches to make the tryout process better:

Know Your Roster

This is easier if you're a returning coach, but, even if you are new to your school, you can get to know your returning players a bit. Many schools have policies that players can't be cut if they made varsity the previous year, so check with your AD and know who is returning and what any policies regarding returning players and roster size are. Can you take any amount of players you want? Are you limited to 10 or 12 or 14? Are you required to take at least a certain number?

In addition to knowing the players who are trying out, make sure you assess your staff. If you don't have an assistant coach, it might be difficult to handle a roster of 16 players. Will varsity and JV practice at the same time? You want to take as many kids as possible, but you also want to make sure that every kid who makes a team has a chance to contribute and the opportunity to be coached at practice.

Have an Evaluation Criteria

Smart coaches know what they are looking for. This helps you focus on what you need. If you know the varsity team has 10 returning players, and you expect to take all 10, you should have an idea of what positions/skillsets that any new players will need to have to make the team. Regardless of how many returning players you have, you should have a clear idea of what you expect a varsity-level player to be able to do on the court. What are the fundamental expectations for serving? For passing? For hitting? Etc.

Now that you have your evaluation criteria, make sure to share it with the players who are trying out. You want to give players every opportunity to succeed. Let them know what you are looking for, and you are more likely to get it!

Focus on volleyball

You won't see the cross-country team out peppering during their practice, but we still see too many volleyball coaches timing their players on mile runs or other long-distance conditioning tests that aren't relevant to volleyball. We don't need track stars, we need players who can serve, pass, set, hit, block, and dig!

Coaches should keep their tryouts focused on the most important volleyball skills. Identify:

  1. Your 1 or 2 strongest attackers who can kill the ball on the left side.

  2. Your strongest servers.

  3. At least 2 potential setters.

  4. Players who can pass and dig.

You can't do this while they are jogging around the track!

Play Lots of Small-Group Games

Small-group games such as Speedball Doubles or Queen of the Court are great for tryouts. They allow you to see which players have the best all-around skills, because the nature of small-group games requires players to execute multiple skills within a rally. It's pretty common for your top 6 Queen of the Court players to all be in your starting lineup.

Small-group games are also easy to score, which provides valuable testing and feedback for tryouts. You should take a closer look at players who are consistently scoring well in small-group games, even if they aren't as physically impressive as other players.

Use Ladders to Sort Players

We love laddered drills. They provide a natural sorting mechanism that sparks competitiveness in players while allowing them to get more reps against other players of equal ability. This sorting also happens to be perfect for tryouts. The basic concept of a ladder is any drill or game that is run on multiple courts (and remember that you can use tape to divide one full-size court into multiple smaller courts) and involves the winning team moving up and the losing team moving down.

For example: a Queen of the Court ladder could be played over 3 courts with the players initially divided categorically (perhaps returning players + seniors on the top court, juniors and sophomores on the middle court, and freshman on the bottom court) to start the first round. After the first round, the following action takes place:

  1. Top Court: Lowest-scoring team moves down to the middle court. Everybody else stays.

  2. Middle Court: Top-scoring team moves up to the top court and lowest-scoring team moves down to the bottom court, everybody else stays.

  3. Bottom Court: Top-scoring team moves up to the middle court. Everybody else stays.

Then, mix the teams up and start a new round.

This combination of small-group games and laddered setup means that players have to display an all-around skillset, win with lots of different teammates (make your teammates better), and get a ton of touches in a competitive setting in a short period of time. What better evaluation system for tryouts could you want?

Consider Specialized Skillsets

Every coach knows that, "you can't teach height." While other specialized positions like liberos and setters still tend to do well in small-group games, you want to consider the players who might be potential middle blockers or rightside players. That 5'11" freshman might not be able to serve, pass, or hit out-of-system yet, but if she can put up a good block and hit when she gets a good set, she might be able to contribute to the varsity team.

We usually find volleyball coaches don't have too much of a problem finding a spot for their tallest players! :)

Consider the "Intangibles"

Hustle matters. So does a positive attitude. We've all coached players who seemed short on skills but contributed in other ways to the team's success. However, we don't think that "Intangible" means "Unmeasurable." One of the reasons we love laddered games and other similar structures is that you're evaluated by how well your team does. Full stop. If your hustle and attitude are leading to team wins, then we can see that by you getting sifted to the top.

Do Some Teaching

When I was an assistant on the USA National Team, we held an Open Tryout every February. Many of the top NCAA players or recent graduates from around the country came to Colorado Springs to try to impress the National Team coaches with the hope of someday competing for Team USA. We always included some teaching drills in our evaluation process.

Why? Well, even the USA National Team, loaded with talent every year is, as Coach Karch Kiraly likes to say, "not good enough." Raise your hand if you don't think your team needs to get better over the course of the season... Yeah, we thought so too!

Do some teaching, particularly of some difficult skills. Do some Ball-Setter-Ball-Hitter and really get into the eyework. Work on a jump float serve with players that haven't done it yet. You're not looking for instant success; you're looking for whether or not that player is willing to be uncomfortable, if they listen and process coaching, and if they are willing to make changes.

Evaluate Every Player

Every player who is brave enough to try out for a team deserves an evaluation. It may not need to be in-depth, but you should have a written evaluation (a spreadsheet makes this easy) for each player. Don't cut a player without a word. First of all, even if a player doesn't make our team, we'd like volleyball to be a lifelong sport for them. Give them an evaluation and let them know what they can work on to improve.

If you coach long enough, you'll also see times where a player gets cut as a sophomore and, rather than getting discouraged, dedicates themselves to getting better, and comes back and makes the team as a junior and senior. By taking a couple minutes to give them a fair but caring evaluation, you leave the door open just a crack... you never know which ones will decide to throw that door open the next year!

Finally, by giving each player a direct evaluation (especially when this evaluation is matched up to the criteria you already told them about, right?) you can avoid some anger and backlash when a player who was hoping to make the team doesn't make the team. You can never prevent all of this, but the less clarity you give players, the more they (and their parents!) can start spinning stories in their head that will feel unfair to them. So be kind and clear in your evaluations!

Consider Rolling Cuts

The most common pre-season tryout period we hear from high school coaches is 3 days of tryouts followed by a single announcements of cuts at the end. Some coaches have successfully modified this to a rolling schedule where, as soon as you know (for sure!) that a player won't make a certain team, you inform them. This can work especially well when you have a freshman team (which ideally will have at least a bigger roster if not a "no cuts" policy).

At the end of the first day, you will likely be able to determine that most of the freshman trying out don't have the skills necessary for the JV or varsity teams. You can then tell them that they are no longer being considered for those teams, but they can come back for the remainder of freshman tryouts in 2 days.

That way, you have fewer players (and thus, more court time per player) on the next day, which will make your next stage of evaluations easier. At the end of the second day, you will likely be able to tell a few additional players that they won't be making a team.

This means that on the final day, you only have a few more players to evaluate than you have spots. So if you are going to take 12 on varsity and 12 on JV, you may enter the 3rd day of tryouts with just 28 players in the gym. This means that those players on the bubble can get the most accurate evaluation, which benefits both them and your program.

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