Imagine your team about to take the ice in a championship game.
Would you feel stressed as a coach?
I know I’d definitely be feeling some nervous anticipation! Not as much, though, as I sometimes feel dealing with try-outs!
Ah, hockey try-outs. A necessary part of your coaching position but not always the most fun. How many of you out there cringe a little bit when you think about having to cut kids and watching them cry, dealing with angry parents (who may or may not even understand the game of hockey) complaining about your decisions, feeling the pressure of politics from your club or organization?
There are a lot of reason most hockey coaches don’t love try-outs!
Well, some of these problems are never going to go away entirely, but there are absolutely some best-practices and some considerations you can make as a coach to make your life 100x easier come try-outs next season.
Let’s dig in and find out what you can do to make your next set of try-outs a much more enjoyable, stress-free experience and get you the best possible roster for your team!
Before we get to that though, let’s give you a quick outline of what you need to be thinking about to make your life easier!
Planning – Before the Try-Outs
Alexander Graham Bell said it all. The more prepared you are the better the results will be. So let’s start at the beginning:
- Always plan your sessions in advance. How many sessions will you have? How much ice time for each? Have you factored in pre- and post-session meetings, warm-ups and water breaks? Answer these questions and use them to develop a written plan for tryouts – the specific drills and timing you want and make sure everyone involved understands the set-up and sequence of events – this is especially important if you won’t be on the ice during the try-outs, but we’ll talk more about that later. Not only is this one of the most important things you can do to reduce your stress, but the better your preparation the more professional you appear to players and parents and the more credibility you gain. Fear not, though, you’ve come to the right place! HockeyShare has some excellent resources to help you plan effective try-out session on the ice.
- Find colleagues to help you during tryouts. As hard as we might try, we still only have one set of eyes and one set of hands. If you want reduce your stress-level, lightening your load with more eyes and more hands is an absolute MUST! In a perfect world, you’re gonna want some help setting up and running drills on the ice, and you’re definitely gonna want some help sitting in the stands evaluating and taking notes. I’d suggest using those with more experience and those who are more trusted as your off-ice evaluators and other volunteers to help you set up and manage drills on the ice. Some best practices here are:
- Avoid the use of any “parent-coaches” or anyone with a connection to any of the kids trying out – particularly in the role of an evaluator! Hey we all love our kids and all come with our own inherent biases – let’s do our best to not let it factor into our decision making and to maintain a perception of fairness for all kids involved!
- If possible, try to get some help evaluating from some coaches who have never coached any of the kids before. Same reason – if we can avoid it, let’s not let prior biases influence putting the best possible team on the ice!
- Create an Evaluation Form. So now that you’ve got some friends helping you evaluate, let’s make their lives easier and your life easier. By coming up with an evaluation form, you’re letting your staff know exactly and specifically what you want them looking for while watching each kid. You’re also getting consistent criteria for you to use in your decision making process. Let’s not make things harder by having to compare apples to oranges!
Coaches can always opt to take their own notes instead of using your exact form, but ask them to at least use the form as a guide.
On your form, you can include things like:
- Skating transitions (forward-to-backward, etc.)
- Giving/receiving passes
- “Hockey sense”
- Any other “non-skill” characteristics you’re looking for. Some examples:
- Hustle – full effort before, during and after every drill
- Accountability (remembering all their equipment, being on time, etc.)
- Resilience (ability to recover from mistakes, not pouting or throwing a tantrum, etc.)
- Coachability (ability to take coaching or criticism)
- Some space for their own general comments
- Consider seeking out feedback from prior coaches of kids you don’t already know. There are definitely some pros and cons to this so we’ll let you make your own decision here, but some things to consider:
- learn a bit about players you don’t know
- hear about their attitude and team orientation
- find out how much the actually scored in games vs. what you see in tryouts
- might give you unfair preconceived notion about some players – be careful here
Get the Info Out
Like most aspects of coaching, communication is key here. Keeping your players and parents well-informed before try-outs even start is one of the best things you can possibly do to make the process smoother for everyone. Likewise, making sure your coaches and evaluators know the game plan ahead of time helps everything move along well.
The single best suggestion I can give you to keep players and parents informed is to create a flyer that’s distributed to them ahead of time with all the info they need about the process. Include things like the schedule and location of each session, the criteria upon which you’re evaluating the kids, best practices for parents, and tips and suggestions for players to have the best possible try-out they can.
The other huge benefit of this form that can’t be overstated is the perception of organization and professionalism it presents to everyone involved in your try-out process. It’s important to understand the psychology here – you’re the professional, you’re presenting yourself accordingly and that’s going to make it a lot easier for players and parents to accept your decisions later in the process.
Now that the players and parents are squared away. Let’s get the coaches and evaluators ready to go as well. Get your Evaluation Forms out to your staff a day or two before the try-outs start so they have a chance to check out what you’re looking for and ask any questions they might have. Same goes for your try-out plans – the specific drills and timing you want – to make sure all coaches are on the same page.
Alright, it’s try-out day! Here are some things to consider to get things moving in a good direction:
- Arrive early. No need for comment here!
- Quick meeting. At beginning of each tryout session, meet face-to-face with the players, let them know the structure of that day’s session, remind them what you’re looking for and wish everyone good luck.
- Avoid parent conversations. Do your best to steer clear of any conversations with parents while you’re at the try-outs, even if you know them, to avoid any perceptions of favoritism.
- On the ice or in the stands? This has been a debate amongst hockey coaches for years! The bottom line is your decision about where to position yourself during try-outs is going to depend on a lot factors: your experience, your coaching staff and your comfort level with them, the level of the players, etc. Think about the advantages of each option and choose what you think is best! Here are some things to think about:
- For multiple session try-outs consider being on ice initially and then in stands for at least the last session.
- If it’s a single-session try-out consider being in the stands after giving your initial introduction on the ice. Make sure your coaching staff knows the exact drills and timing you want to see – specifics are important!
- Try to observe at least the final tryout session from the stands (preferably where no one can disturb you!). At this point there’s probably only a few kids you really need to watch (the ones on the bubble) and giving yourself a different perspective can be helpful.
- Keep the evaluators on their own. Evaluators should sit away from all parents for obvious reasons. If you’re really feeling crazy, consider a closed try-out with no parents watching at all if your club or league allows. Just remember, that might cause more problems than it prevents – consider all your options!
- Don’t “pre-label”. Make sure you’re not deciding the fate of any kids at try-outs before they actually try-out! Treat every kid the same to preserve the perception of fairness and impartiality. For example, have coaches demonstrate drills rather than asking a kid who was on the team last year to show it, and potentially give an impression of favoritism. Perception is reality for most players and parents!
On the Ice
There’s no right or wrong way to run your try-outs on the ice and obviously there are a lot of considerations that go into how you structure things: age, ability level, coaching resources, number of kids, etc. Trust your hockey experience and instincts to organize your try-out the best way you can. Hey, you’re the coach for a reason!
Here are some things for you to consider:
Obviously if time is a constraining factor, you want to get down to business and warming up is probably low on the priority list for many coaches during try-outs. Think about this though: not only is a good warm-up important to allow kids to perform at their best (isn’t that what we’re looking for here?), but watching who takes their warm-up seriously and who just goes through the motions can start to tell you a lot about kids’ attitudes.
Skill drills are always an important component of try-outs since they can give you a good idea of where your kids all stack up skill-wise, as well as further insight into each kid’s attitude towards doing skill work. As a coach, you should be careful to choose drills that are developmentally appropriate for the level of the kids trying out.
Keep your life simple! Think about choosing drills that allow you to evaluate single, specific criteria rather than drills where you’re trying to judge several different things all at the same time. For example, drills that specifically evaluate things like transitioning from forwards to backwards skating, puck handling and giving and receiving passes, might be more accurately evaluated if they were all part of their own quicker drills.
Including one-on-one and small group competitive drills is another great way to get a better idea of where kids measure up against each other and see how well they compete. One-on-one’s and two-on-one’s can help a lot to evaluate each kid’s ability to move the puck offensively and play defense. These small group set-ups also allow you to easily manipulate the match-ups on each repetition as you see fit to get a sense of where certain kids stack up against each other.
In addition to the standard full team scrimmages, think about spending some time doing full ice three-on-three’s. This spreads out the game and gives more space for you to carefully assess each player’s skills as well as their “hockey sense,” creativity, positioning, conditioning, ability to beat guys one-on-one, how much hustle they show on defensively and of course their overall attitude.
Full team scrimmages are also an important tool in your arsenal. Continue to change up the lines frequently to get different looks and vary the competition, giving you a fuller picture of each kid. Remember that you’re not just observing their skills here, but looking for their hockey sense, as well – their ability to read the situation, see the big picture, be in the right spot, anticipate the puck, etc. Creativity, ability to read the play and continuous movement are also good things to watch for in these scrimmages that skill work alone won’t show you.
Goalies can be a unique animal when it comes to try-outs so it’s important to think about the best way to handle them ahead of time. Depending on how many goalies you have trying out and on your ice-time limitations, you might consider having a goalie-only try-out session sometime before the main try-outs. That allows you to initially screen out anyone whose skills are not yet at the right level before your actual try-outs. That can be important, as having too many goalies at your regular try-outs can make it hard to evaluate each of them.
Because goalies are unique, another thing to think about might be assigning one coach to be a goalie-only evaluator. In addition, when assessing goalies try to commit at least some of your ice time to “goalie friendly” drills. For example, having multiple players line up pucks and shoot rapid fire at a goalie, might test his reaction time, but is not a very game-realistic scenario! Obviously, in addition to these drills, watching them in scrimmage situations is also important.
Choosing Your Team
This is real life. Deciding on your roster is usually a bit more complicated than we’d like it to be. So let’s quickly touch on a few things to think about to help you out here!
Take Advantage of Your Evaluators
Hey, they’re here for a reason! At the end of each session, block out some time to sit down with your evaluators and compare notes. Be prepared for different people to have different opinions about the same kid, though. Invariably, different coaches will notice different things, and that’s ok! In fact, that’s the whole reason you asked for help! It’s not possible to see everything yourself. The important thing here is, if they’re seeing something different than you, figure out why.
If you’re looking to simplify things, another great tactic is to ask your evaluators to rank all the kids trying out, with each kid on either an offensive or defensive list. This can be a quick way to confirm or to question what your thoughts were and can be an easy jumping off point for the conversation where there are discrepancies.
Another useful tactic is to consider having someone keep track of how many goals each kid scores over the course of the try-outs in both drills and scrimmages. This can be a good way to help identify the kids who just have a better knack for finding the net.
Narrow Your Focus
Towards the end of your try-outs, there will likely be several kids you already know will make the team and several kids who will not. So let’s take advantage of that and make our lives a bit easier. Now’s the time when you can selectively ignore those kids while watching practice, freeing you up to pay closer attention to kids on the bubble. This number should hopefully decrease as the try-outs progress.
If you have several sessions in which to run your try-outs, you can also consider cutting the kids you know won’t make it at the end of each session and bring back fewer kids for the subsequent sessions. This lets you watch the kids on the bubble a little more carefully and helps you avoid the situation where a “bubble kid” maybe looks better than he really is due to match-ups against some of the less-skilled kids in the earlier sessions.
Skills aside, you might also think about what each kid would contribute to the group or team dynamic. This could be the difference maker for some of these players and the best fit for your team is not necessarily the biggest, fastest or strongest kid.
Do the Parents Make the Team?
One last thing you might think about is: How are a kid’s parents going to be to deal with? Hate to say it, but this has to be a real thought for coaches in this day and age.
- Are they high maintenance?
- Do they bad mouth other players, teams, clubs or coaches they’ve been involved with?
These are very real factors that can not only contribute to your enjoyment of the season but to the cohesiveness of your team as a whole!
Letting them Know
No coach enjoys telling a kid they didn’t make your team, but it’s a part of the process we can’t get rid of. The way you handle cuts as a coach is so important for several reasons. First, fair or not, it’s a way that many gauge your professionalism and your compassion for the kids you coach. It can have a big influence on how people view both you and your organization, team or club. Let’s take a quick look at a few ways to make it easier, less-stressful and more painless for everyone involved!
The Sealed Envelope Technique
Once again, there’s no right or wrong way to do you cuts, but this is one method that has been effective. (Gotta give credit to HockeyShare’s own Coach Kevin Muller for this one!)
After the final tryout, each player receives a sealed envelope with their name on it. The envelope will either have a “congratulations” letter or a “thanks for trying out” letter. The players receive the envelope AFTER they’ve showered and are ready to leave. Players are instructed NOT to open the letters until they get to their cars (parents are informed the same thing). This way, if they’re cut, they’re already in the car and can leave quietly without embarrassment and it also decreases the likelihood of an angry parent coming back into the rink.
Players selected are asked to come back inside for a meeting.
The 24-Hour Rule
The day after the try-outs end, post the selected roster online. Let all parents know that any conversations about your decisions will not be held until after the roster is posted. Emotions can be high for certain parents immediately after the letters are distributed and that might not lend itself to productive discussion. This period will hopefully allow those who are unhappy some time to cool off and have a productive discussion if warranted.
Another good suggestion is to wait until after 9 PM the day after try-outs to post your roster, to further minimize the likelihood of getting any calls until the following day.
It’s important to let each kid get some feedback as to where they need to improve. I’ve always felt that if we’re going to cut a kid, we have a responsibility to let him or her know what they can do to improve for next season and give them some hope. After all, as ambassadors of the sport, we don’t ever want our try-out to be the reason a kid quits!
As much as we might not want to deal with unhappy parents, giving the kids some feedback is just the right thing to do. One suggestion is to set aside an afternoon in the coming days when the team is not practicing to have 15 minute meetings with any player or parent interested in receiving feedback. It could also be done over email or phone, but is much more impactful for the player when done face-to-face. Always start by telling the player what they did well and then transition into where they need to improve.
Obviously, we need to be prepared for those who are critical of your decisions. The fact is you’re never going to be able to please everyone. If you’re the coach, it’s your team and your decisions but there will likely be a few parents, board members or friends who are unhappy and make it known that they disagree with your decisions, and that’s ok. In these meetings, always make sure to be a good listener, first and foremost. If a parent or player is talking, sit quietly and listen. Don’t cut them off, don’t interrupt and let them finish completely. If needed, take notes so you can respond to all the points once they are done talking. Many times parents just want to be able to say their peace, and by letting them go until they’re completely finished, you’re allowing them to get that satisfaction. Even if they still disagree with you, they’ll never be able to say that you didn’t listen to them!
Putting It All Together
Coaching hockey is fun, rewarding and challenging all at the same time. You as coaches are in the unique position to share your passion and knowledge with the next generation of players and coaches and help create great young men and women in the process.
Let’s be honest, it sucks to have an otherwise AWESOME experience become a stressful, frustrating headache because of try-outs.
Now, imagine a situation where your try-outs run smoothly, your decision-making process is easier than ever and parent complaints are at an all-time minimum.
How much more would you enjoy your coaching position? How much more quickly could you just get to work doing what you do best – coaching and developing your team?
Hopefully this guide has given you some great ideas to get there, but we want to make this system bulletproof for you by giving you the materials you need to solve these problems now!
Pete Jacobson created WinSmarter to help coaches with the biggest frustrations we all sometimes struggle with: things like dealing with difficult parents, motivating your players, recruiting more kids into your program, fundraising, increasing participation in off-season activities and much more. Get started right now with the Hockey Coaches’ Try-Out Survival Kit.