There is no way around it, tryouts suck.
While some players leave happy, some kids’ (and parents’) dreams are always dashed. Add in emotion, tension, and sometimes anger and tears.
While a lot has to do with parent and child outlook and approach (that’s a different post), the experience can also be shaped by how the team and/or association rolls out the tryout process.
I’ve seen the good, the bad and the ugly.
Over the past 20 years I’ve been working with teams, groups and communities to make services more engaging for users. What helps people feel welcome? What helps people feel that they matter? What keeps people coming back?
So, when I think of the hockey experience, I’m always considering hockey from that angle.
How can we can make hockey not just a more positive experience for everyone, but an experience that considers the development of all players (physical, emotional, social), not just those who make the top teams? Because if you don’t look after all your players, eventually they will leave and when your top players move on your association will suffer.
Last week I asked 40K moms what they think would help make hockey tryouts easier on everyone. I’ve taken their feedback and added it on to my own experience and opinions as a parent of 3 kids who have played on 35 teams across 6 associations, and as the former president of a minor hockey association.
Based experience, suggestions from coaches, and all the input from the moms, here is a summary of what associations/teams can do.
1. Be organized and transparent
No one wants to get tryout information from a buddy the night before the first skate, or realize they missed the deadline for registration, or have to spend 30 minutes searching a website for a link (as I did two nights ago). This is frustrating and time consuming and makes your association look like they don’t know what they are doing.
It also provides players from last year the advantage because they, along with a couple other players, have probably already received the information directly from the coach (which makes it seem like tryouts are fixed from the beginning).
Truthfully, being organized also benefits coaches so they have an accurate reading of how many players are showing up which helps with running the tryout.
When players and families arrive at tryouts confused they are already primed for a negative experience.
· Have a website? Add your tryouts directly to your association calendar so they are easily accessible. If they can’t be added to the “team season” because the season hasn’t started add each entry as an event.
· Post a list of all registration information, tryout dates, and a way to contact someone with questions in an easily accessible place on the landing page of your website
· Add the line “please pass this on to anyone you think might be interested” to your communications and blast the information out to every email address you have (and you should a lot from previous years or registration)
· Share the information across whatever social media platforms you use
It seems simple but trust me, it’s not practiced consistently across associations. Taking the time to communicate effectively is felt immediately by families.
Think of it this way, it might take an hour for someone from your association to put all the information on the website. Think about the combined time that this saves families. I even did an estimate:
Time Spent Per Family
Total Time Spent by All Families
Tryout Information NOT Posted
100 families X 20 minutes each
2000 minutes (33.3 hours)
Tryout Information CLEARLY posted
100 families X 5 minutes each
500 minutes (8.3 hours)
*In this exaggerated scenario clear communication and organization saves families 25 hours or a full day of looking for information you could have easily had available. It's a stretch, but you get the point.
Plus, it’s just good practice.
2. Streamline your process
How complex is your process? If there are multiple steps it might need to be pared down. I just had a child in a tryout where there was:
· An electronic registration form
· Tryout times were posted somewhere obscure on the website
· Communication with the coach was by Facebook messenger
· A post-dated paper cheque was required for registration (who even has those?) but it would ONLY be cashed if the player made the team
· You had to bring cash to the tryout – nothing else was accepted (who has cash? No receipt provided.)
· There was a paper Covid screening form to be filled out at the rink (we all did it in the parking lot using a clip board)
· And then you had to physically sign another form to get into the rink.
· Automate as much as possible, including registration, communication with players who have signed up for tryouts (you will have email and/or phone contacts), payments, and screening. You will save your association and your families so much time and confusion
· Set up a way to pay electronically for those who can (e.g. PayPal, Credit Card, e-transfer)
· Provide a contact information/email if people have questions
· There will always be people who are unable to access electronic forms, but you will have saved everyone so much time that you will be fielding questions for fewer people and will be better able to help them with their specific needs.
3. Have enough people available to help at the rink
Nothing is worse than showing up with a nervous kid (and parents) and not knowing what you are supposed to do or where you are supposed to go. This adds to the frustration, confusion, and sense of not belonging when half the kids know where they are going and half don’t. Everyone’s nerves are on edge, there are very simple ways to make this a more enjoyable experience for everyone no matter what age/skill level.
· Ask for executive members or volunteers to have a table out front to deal with all the players coming in and process whatever information they need to process.
· Use older players to help show new/younger players where to go and escort them to the dressing room
· Be friendly and welcoming. Even if the player doesn’t make it, they will associate your team/association with class and respect.
· Approach players who are walking around looking confused. Sound ridiculous? It’s not.
4. Neutral jerseys/sweaters for tryouts
Want to reassure parents and players that the team isn’t already picked?
For the love of God, don’t have last year’s players wearing their game jerseys for tryouts while the other players wear whatever they can find in the bottom of their stale bag.
I saw this happen recently. Last year’s players actually wore each other’s jerseys (they swapped) but it was obvious that there were two groups: 1) already made this team and 2) newbies. That’s bad vibes. As one coach told me, it also puts a target on the players from last year’s team because, “If I was trying out those would be the players I would want to take out.”
That's what lots of parents would tell their kids if they were vying for a spot on a team.
· If possible have sets of practice jerseys with numbers specifically for tryouts that can be used year after year and will save a lot of headaches and bad feelings. They might be older, retired jerseys, or practice sets. Larger associations or older teams may also be able to provide tryout socks. You can even purchase new ones if you see fit and include it in tryout costs, kids get to keep them.
· These jerseys/socks can be handed out at the table as people sign in with the instruction to hand them back after tryouts (see #2)
· If this is NOT possible, players should be asked to bring a white and dark numbered jersey preferably not from the association
· It all comes back to #1 – be organized
5. Enough on-ice staff and external/unbiased evaluators
Crowded tryouts are almost a waste of time for the kids, stressful for the coach and leaves anyone watching wondering how they can possibly figure out who should pick the team.
Alternatively, when all the coaches on the ice have kids trying out the validity of your tryouts come into question.
Yes, I know this is hard to mitigate in smaller associations when you can’t find help, but you can at least try, because this seems to make everyone's blood boil.
· Arrange some external evaluators to help – these can be people arranged by the coaches or they can be coaches from other teams. Maybe they are past coaches, people who like hockey in the community, or older/graduated players.
· Consider having coaches of the next level tier help out (e.g. AA coaches help evaluate the AAA team)
· In most cases avoid having siblings help with tryouts, and avoid having dads who are not the coach on the ice until tryouts are over. It doesn’t matter if their kid is a shoe-in, optics matter. A lot.
6. Clear evaluation process
How are your tryouts going to run? When will teams be selected, how many teams will there be at each level, where should players go if they don’t make the team, how are coaches to inform players that they have made it?
If you can’t answer those questions how can parents/players possibly know?
And if they don’t know?
Well…. Tryouts suck.
The selection process, timeline, how teams are announced, are a major concern for parents. The challenge is that every association may have a different process that might even vary slightly by team. But if they are communicated and follow some general best practices it will help everyone.
· Do you have a player selection/evaluation policy? Have it available and easily accessible on your website. Send it to players in advance
· Coaches should communicate before tryouts what they are looking for and the process they will use
· A contact name/information should be provided if people have questions
· Do some brainstorming ahead of time of questions likely to be asked and provide a template to coaches of the answers and information relevant to the association they can share with families (adding in their own team information). This can be as simple as an email they add to and forward on.
7. The bungled cuts
I have a hard time believing that any coach gets into hockey because they like crushing kids’ dreams. Unfortunately, as elated as some players are going to be, others are going to be devastated.
How coaches and/or associations vary, and I think my children have experienced all of it, including:
· Posted teams outside the dressing room following a skate
· Individual meetings at the rink
· Phone calls
· Teams posted publicly online
· Teams posted privately online
· I know there are others I am missing.
According to feedback, the best experiences have something in common; they are private, they provided specific feedback, and they offered a next step.
The worst experiences put children struggling to control their emotions on display in front of entire team. Why are “the cuts” made in the furthest away dressing room with the longest public walk? I’ve seen many times where the players are even lined up outside the dressing room waiting to talk to the coach which means everyone is looking for reactions of players as they leave. Other horror stories involve teams posted online after midnight, meaning a child wakes up, has their dreams crushed, and then goes to school.
While associations can’t control the words shared by a coach, they can certainly put some guidelines in place to help respect the dignity of the players and build their resilience and willingness to continue in hockey with your particular association.
· If coaches are delivering the verdict in person (preferred at later stages in the selection process) find space to chat with players that doesn’t allow spectators and that has as private an exit as possible. No kid needs to experience the walk of shame through players and families trying to read the face they are keeping together.
· If it’s an online message – don’t post it after midnight (or too late for an average child to learn the results before bed). Parents loudly stated this was a pet peeve
· Coaches should provide some detail to players about strengths and what they can work on. Good feedback is invaluable and important to player’s development, and especially important if a player is down to the last few cuts.
8. The aftermath – what next? Helping figure it out
I have witnessed some terrible tryout experiences, the worst involve kids being cut and not knowing where to go next or how to do it. Associations will ease the pain of this process by providing information to families about where to go and how.
For example – If a child is trying out for AAA and doesn’t make it, where can they go next? Depending on where you are, this varies. In some places you would just go to the next tier (e.g. AA), but in my rural area for example they wouldn’t able to tryout for a AA team until age 12, they would have to go back to their home centre, while in girls’ hockey where I am girls can be in tryouts in multiple associations at the same time.
The rules are tricky, someone on your association probably knows them, chances are your parents (and some coaches) don’t. So give folks a hand.
· Choose to follow up with families who were unsuccessful securing a spot on the team. This could mean directing them to different teams within your organization, or letting them know the path or contact to other associations. Providing options is important and can help open the door for players who are disheartened
· If a player needs a release to move on to the next tryout have someone available to provide them immediately, the only thing worse than being cut is running around to find someone to give you permission to move on to another team while trying to console your child about this one
· Consider having the coaches of the second entry/tier team available to meet the player. One mom talked about how important it was to her son when his next coach was waiting to talk to him, introduce himself and share how excited he was to get to work with him. It ended up being his best season and a key factor was getting it started right.
These are just a few of the things that can be done to make the tryout process suck less for everyone. Some of them seem obvious, but based on your responses to my questions, they are not.
Being cut isn’t the end of the world, in fact, it can be the thing that pushes a player to the next level (think Michael Jordan). But if your goal is an association is to provide a great experience and keep kids coming back, these simple fixes can be a good start to a great season no matter where they play.
Theresa Bailey is the founder of Canadian Hockey Moms community, Past President of CHMHA, and mother of three hockey playing children.