My ninth grade son just finished tryouts for the high school hockey team.  He made it – JV that is – but not without plenty of angst for him and us.  And he’s child #3 so we should be used to the process by now!  In fact, I estimate that – between soccer, hockey, and lacrosse – we’ve endured 19 different high school tryout sessions over the past 6+ years.  We have the scars to prove it!  Which got me to thinking about why it’s such a painful process for parents and children alike.  And why do some deserving kids get left behind when some less deserving ones make it?

Let’s face it.  We live in a hyper-competitive world.  Where your child goes to college/university is not just a function of his/her academic performance but whether they play an instrument, volunteer, play on a varsity team, etc.   So high school athletics is not just competing for a spot on the team but also to be able to add another accomplishment to the college application.  So this leads to pressure by parents on their kids to perform and, in some cases, behind the scenes lobbying.  It can get ugly!

But I also think it’s about unrealistic expectations and an inability to effectively assess talent.  We all know about the former and, as parents, we’re all guilty as charged.  So it’s the task of talent assessment that I want to dwell on for a moment.  Why is it that coaches and evaluators get it wrong so often?  It’s easy to understand how it happens when parents are coaching young children.  They’re volunteers who have varying motivations and varying degrees of coaching competence.  You get what you pay for.  But high school coaches?

High school coaches have two mandates: win and help the kids learn lessons from being on a team.  [The latter should be an outcome of striving for the former.  But that’s the subject for another day.]  And the criteria they are supposed to apply to selecting the players is whether the player can help the team win.  In other words, if that player has some combination of skills, work ethic, and desire to be a contributor to team success.  Easy, right?  Not so.

None of these factors can be effectively assessed during a 3-5 day tryout.  Aside from the standouts (and they can usually be counted on one hand), even skills are hard to assess in a tryout environment.  Basic skills such as running, skating, jumping, etc. can be somewhat assessed but what about decision-making skills and an ability to “see plays develop” (both part of sports IQ)?  Very difficult.  And desire to make the team (tryout effort) doesn’t necessarily translate into desire to win in the heat of battle (competitiveness).  Finally, there’s no way to effectively assess work ethic – that is, a commitment to personal improvement – in a tryout.

So what we’re left with is a very imperfect process subject to errors and lobbying pressure.  [In fairness, the best coaches actively solicit third party assessments and also do pre-tryout scouting.]  Nobody’s going to deny the top athletes but below them don’t expect an objective outcome.  All you can do is ask your own kid to put their best foot forward and hope for the best.  And if they don’t make it and have a passion for the game tell them to redouble their efforts in preparation for next year.  Remind them it’s not necessarily about them – it’s the process.  And, when all’s said and done, life lessons come in various guises, including being overlooked for the high school team.