Selecting Players

Notice: This article was written by Steve Jordan, Coach's Notebook. Email the author at sjordan@alaskalife.net.

A Word About Tryouts

Basketball tryouts can be difficult for coaches. For small schools, there may be limited number of aspirants, but typically there are dozens of enthusiastic players hoping to make a team. Even in programs like the YMCA Youth Basketball leagues that endeavor to offer an opportunity for everyone to play, there may be a limited number of teams due to a lack of coaches or sponsors. The end result, in a high school program or a youth league organization, is that some kids will not get a chance to participate. It is usually the coaches that make the painful decision of who gets cut. Tryouts for basketball are usually very difficult and brief periods to evaluate dozens of eager players. Other complications include adequate gym space, complexity in organizing large numbers of candidates and trying to measure critical subjective attributes such as skills, potential and character.

The most important attribute for the tryout period is a sense of fairness among the candidates. If everyone has an equal chance to show their skills, the final decisions on player selection will probably be accepted by the players and their parents. If some players are considered favorites, by not actively participating or by receiving a disproportionate share of exposure, the slighted players will be disgruntled.

In every tryout, there will be some players that stand out as obvious picks for the team. The difficulty for the coaches is in deciding who will fill the bottom half of the roster. For instance, one player may have fewer skills than another, but shows more potential. It may seem like the best answer is to pick the player with the most potential and develop him/her, but try to determine the degree of coachability. In my arrogance, I have chosen players with good physical characteristics with the belief that I could mold them into a fine basketball player, only to struggle all season with attitude problems or poor attendance. An area where a coach's stereotypes can get in the way is dismissing candidates that don't have the outward appearance normally associated with a basketball player. I have passed on players that I thought were too short or too heavy only to end up competing against them to my team's detriment, so look carefully at the full range of contribution each player has to offer.

Here is some advice that may help:

Tryout Suggestions

Before you start, declare your expectations. Try and put yourself in the kids' shoes. They're all probably nervous and anxious to please, but they don't know what to expect. So, tell them. Describe a theoretical, ideal candidate. Don't use a real life example, or worse, one of the candidates. In fact, don't set any player above the others. To give you an example, here's an opening address:

"Thank you all for attending basketball tryouts. I know you are nervous, excited and eager to get busy, but let me take a minute to tell you what the coaches are looking for. We don't have very much time to look at you, so first impressions are very important. For that reason, don't hold anything back. Show us what you have. Any hidden talent or effort you take home with you will be qualities we don't know about.

First impressions include how you dress. Are you dressed to play or dressed for style? You get no points for style in the tryouts.

A second impression will be how willing you are to work hard. It means a lot if you are already in great physical shape. But it also means a lot if you're not in great shape, but are willing to get there. If you are still trying your best even when you are tired, we will notice that. If you give up easily when you're fatigued, we'll notice that, too.

Do you know how to listen? We will be asking to do a variety of drills, many of which may be new to you. Its OK if you don't know a drill, but its not helpful to you if you do not pay attention to directions.

Are you willing to perform the skills according to the coaches' directions? We will be stressing fundamental techniques and may ask you to perform skills differently than you are used to. Its far more important to us that you attempt the skill properly and be awkward rather than repeat a bad habit that you are comfortable with. For example, let's say you cannot shoot left handed layups well so you insist on shooting with your right hand. It doesn't matter to me that the shot goes in if it was made with the wrong hand. The point is that if you are not willing to change, we can't make you any better than you are now.

Finally, your basketball skills are meaningless if you cannot maintain your grades or get your paperwork in on time. Being on the basketball team is a special privilege, and it requires a great deal of time and commitment. If your level of responsibility isn't mature enough to manage a busy schedule and basketball, then you shouldn't be in the program. Further, if your grades are marginal, then there is a risk to the entire team that you may not be available at the end of the semester. The coaches will weigh that risk into the decision whether or not to select you as a basketball player."

Observe players performing exact same skill sets. Be sure to cover basics such using either hand for ball-handling and shooting. Young players can learn to use their weak hand for dribbling and shooting within the course of a season. After that first year, they will use either hand without a second thought. The longer a player remains single-handed, the harder it becomes to change. Single-handed players are an extreme liability at a competitive level because they are so easy to guard.

Should you score every player on different skills? It's a nice idea and it would be great to have a list with the players sorted by score. The objective approach may quell some backlash as you have documents to back your decisions. However, most coaches would rather trust their instincts. It's difficult to measure people with numbers. How do you score court sense or passing ability? At best you could score players as good - fair - poor and various scores, but that doesn't really differentiate the individuals very well. Besides, it is really tough to run a tryout and keep track of scores.

Avoid putting too many players on the team. Ten is the ideal number because each player will get an equal amount of practice time in scrimmages and the game time substitution rotations can be very simple. Twelve player teams are common and provide coverage for injuries and other contingencies, but usually the 11th and 12th players receive few minutes of playing time. Having more than twelve players practically guarantees dissatisfaction over playing time throughout the course of the season. Adding extra player to avoid the pain of cuts is a short-term solution.

Maintain a balance of talents on your team, assuming there are enough players in the tryout pool. If all your players are alike, there will be consistent weaknesses in your game plans. If your team is tall but cannot handle the ball, or is fast but too short to rebound well, your game strategy will be compromised.

Decide if players have the will to do conditioning. If players are out of shape, they may be worthwhile to pick up. Watch for those that quit easily during the tryout drills. If the players in your program do not want to train, it will be nearly impossible to be competitive.

Look for players who have already mastered fundamentals and show a good grasp of court sense. They have already proven they have a devotion to the game and are coachable. Players who are physically appealing, but unskilled, MUST show a willingness to learn and change. Too often players blessed with physical advantages are convinced they are good enough and only need try harder when the game gets tough. Over the course of the season, however, players with average ability eventually surpass the value of the gifted athlete because of their new skills and experience. Ultimately, the gifted athlete becomes a liability if he/she plays in a manner contrary to the team direction. Time invested in team offense and defensive strategies is wasted if one member elects to take ill-advised shots or is irresponsible on defense. Basketball favors the advantaged athlete, however. All other things being equal, quickness and height are hard to beat.

Do not waste time on players that are argumentative or cannot pay attention. End of story.

Be leery of players that cannot get their paperwork in on time.

Insist on timeliness as a condition to staying in the program.

Consider grade point averages when making cuts. A marginal student may not be able to finish the season. There is a School District rule in Alaska that makes any student with less than a 2.0 gpa ineligible to play or practice. If you are coaching in a youth group league like the YMCA, grades are still an important factor. Some parents will not allow their child to play anywhere if their grades don't meet family standards. Counter-point: If basketball can motivate anyone to improve their grades - that's wonderful.

Difficult Decisions - That Last Cut

Team chemistry is built around commitment. Some coaches in areas with large talent pools can weed out the possible problem players and not suffer much, but coaches starving for talent must make more agonizing decisions. It is really hard to let a prospect go that has the physical characteristics you desire or has the ability to play at a higher level than the rest. Yet, coaches that have been around a while get quite familiar with the uncommitted "star" that misses practices, won't work at conditioning, bickers with teammates - and on and on. At some point it isn't worth it to try and build a team around an uncommitted person. This is especially true once you have had the joy of working with a group of unselfish kids that exceeded all expectations simply because they worked hard and worked together.

When you decide to choose a player that had commitment problems, make that choice with your head and not your vanity. After all, you are burdening some of the most important people in your life - your team - with the problem child and the situation will probably last ALL season. Is it possible for a kid to respond to a basketball team and improve character? Yes. Can a coach "change" a person through effort and values? No. That's the vanity - thinking you can force it. The right kid, at the right time in life, will respond. It may not matter who the coach is.

If you find a special player that needs help, its critical to have the commitment to the team. If the player isn't willing to practice, work hard, do fund raising, follow your instructions to the letter, conform to team rules - in short, change for the team, it won't work out.

What about the marginal player that "paid dues"?

The dedicated attender isn't always the best choice. I've seen some cases where a player has always been included in the program because of his "attitude", but objectively speaking, hadn't really improved much despite the camps, etc. Finally, at some point in his career, he's cut and the parents get really upset because the kid "paid his dues". They really don't care that he has the least amount of ability and could be replaced by a better (and committed) kid. The camps and open gym are wonderful opportunities for the kids, but they shouldn't place obligations on the coach.

Be prepared to justify your decisions

After all the soul searching and painful decisions are completed, your troubles may not be over. Be prepared for a challenge from a heart-broken parent. This is a very difficult situation because there is nothing you can say that will make a parent feel any better. All you can do is explain your process and say that you tried to be as fair as possible. Its OK to admit you're not perfect and that time may prove you could have made better choices, but at this time you feel you did the best you could. Keep this conversation as short as possible because the situation will not improve as it continues.

DO NOT compare the parent's child with another player. Don't even talk about another player. The parent has a right to discuss their child, but no other.

DO NOT add to your team roster just to appease a parent. If you do, your future teams will be populated with players who have the noisiest parents.

Disappointed parents may go over your head. An administrator may approach you and ask about your tryout process. If you can show that your selection was based on a fair evaluation, you'll probably be staunchly supported.

The cut players will like to know what they can do to better their chances next time. Again, you can't make them feel better, but you can suggest some things they can work on. Also, encourage them to stay active in sports. There are probably recreational venues where they can play basketball. Just don't make any promises. Its up to the kids to be good enough to make the team.

In summary ...

If you decide to keep a player based physical potential and cut a kid that has marginal potential but has displayed all the other characteristics you're looking for, make sure that the difference in the physical potential is dramatic. Otherwise, it isn't worth it. If the physically advantaged player is going to see few minutes anyway, you may have a happier season with the other player. It may come down to this question - which kid do you want to spend your season with?