I often joke that at the first tryout, if I line all the players up on the goal line and have a race to the other end, I can pick my team right there. Unfortunately, it’s not that simple.
Tryout time is certainly stressful for many players. But, it can also be very stressful for coaches as well. No one likes to have to cut payers and disappoint them, and there is also the stress of trying to choose the players that deserve to be there and will be the best fit for your team for the next year. Not to mention the parental and organizational pressure that can often be put on coaches.
Here are some tips for running tryouts and choosing your team:
1) Choose the most talented players. This may seem like a no brainer but some talented players might not be the biggest, strongest, fastest or hardest shooting. There will always be a few players who don’t look the part but can bring a wealth of talent and scoring ability to the rink every day.
2) Do some advanced reconnaissance. Particularly if you have a number of players trying out that you don’t know, try to get some scoring statistics from their last season. You will often be surprised at how some players you would think are high flying offensive players didn’t perform very well and conversely, some player’s stats will be surprisingly high. This may not always be possible depending on what coaches keep stats and are willing to share but having those statistics can really help in identifying talent. I know I have chosen players that on tryouts alone were projected to be a top line 20 goal scorer only to turn out to be a solid third line 5 goal scorer. Still a valuable member of the team but not what I was expecting on tryouts alone. I later found out that he had scored 5 goals the entire previous season as well.
3) Have some trusted hockey minds doing evaluation for you. I always have two or three colleagues in the stands watching the tryouts and evaluating for me. I ask them to make notes on players and at the end of the session to rank all of them. Depending on the age group, I will have them rank forwards and defencemen separately. Mostly I use these ranking to either support what I am seeing or to look more closely at the players who we are seeing differently. It also helps to have some back-up on a cut that is questioned.
4) Don’t pre-identify players at tryouts. My high school soccer coach would separate the players into two groups on the first day of tryouts: the “Probables” and the “Possibles”. He was an old British English teacher and it was somewhat endearing and a little amusing that he did this. It was also made a little better that the “Possibles” had been playing together for years and were the young players who would typically make up the Junior Varsity team that year. But, it certainly told you where you stood on the first day.
As endearing as it might have been, it was detrimental to the tryout process. The “Possibles” figured they couldn’t make Varsity and the “Probables” figured they had already made it. Luckily for coach, this was back in the “dark ages” when parents weren’t on the sidelines watching or this system would not have gone over too well. Someone told me about one hockey organization at tryouts that puts all their returning AAA players into one colour, their AA players trying out into another colour and all players who have come to tryout from anywhere else in another colour. Although I am sure it makes it easier for evaluators, I don’t think this is a good idea. First, it separates the players to the point that you will not see everyone’s best. Some players will thinks it’s a forgone conclusion as to their fate - good or bad. Second, it’s good to see the middle players playing with the top players. Some players will step up and surprise. Some will do the opposite. Third, for those watching it gives the illusion of fairness in the tryout process. There is nothing worse than a player (and parent) who doesn’t feel they were given a fair shot at making the team because they weren’t playing with anyone good in their group.
5) You don’t have to watch everyone. In a group of 30 players, typically 10 will be locks to make the team and 10 will be not quite ready to play at this level. Focus your attention on the middle 10. They are the ones you are going to have to make decisions about and you can have your evaluators in the stands do the same.
6) As soon as it’s appropriate, cut the players you know will not make the team. It is tough to evaluate players when there is a big gap in talent. An “on the bubble” player will look much better going one on one with a bottom level player that a top player. Back in Atom, my son was looking terrific when there were 30 players on the ice at a tryout. I thought he had a good shot to make the team as an underage player and he was ecstatic to make it through the first round of cuts. Once he was out on the ice with 18 players it was clear he wasn’t going to make the team that year. (And, it was clear it would be much better for him developmentally to be in the top group with a younger team.)
7) Have someone in the stands keep track of goals scored. I am a big fan of scoring goals and I truly believe that sometimes goal scoring doesn’t come in the form of the most talented and strongest player. I have known too many players who just have a “knack” for scoring. And there is no explaining it! Count the goals scored by each player in each of the drills at tryouts. It may not influence your player decisions at the end of the day but it might give you cause to watch some players more closely - both for scoring and not scoring.
8) Run drills that allow you to evaluate something specific. If you want to evaluate shot strength then run a drill that focuses on that. If you want to see skating speed then run sprints down the ice. Don’t run drills that have too many components where players will get confused and there are too many things to watch for.
9) Play full ice three on three. You can evaluate so many things playing three on three: skating, passing, moving to space, scoring ability, one on one play, reading and reacting, defensive/offensive mindset - even conditioning.
10) As a head coach, go on the ice and run the practice. This is the first time you will be with many of the players and you can set the tone for the season right away if you are out with them. Have some help running the practice (moving pucks, setting pylons, explaining drills) but it’s good to be on the ice at this time and be the main voice.
Finally, keep in mind the group dynamic. The team has to spend the better part of a year together and it is important that everyone gets along and enjoys the season. I have written in an earlier post about “Coaching the Project”. It is OK to also evaluate what a player brings to the team off the ice as well as on.