Making the case for cuts

How cutting kids from teams has long-term benefits

One of the most difficult times for any coach are tryouts. Some schools have programs where the numbers dictate the need for making cuts. No coach enjoys this part of the job — not a single one. Making cuts is not only difficult for the student-athletes and parents, but it can also be difficult for the coach.

The majority of us were brought into coaching with the mindset that the opportunity to be part of a team is beneficial and rewarding for everyone involved. Sports are supposed to be an extension of the academic experience and teach valuable lessons about personal growth, character and working toward a common goal. All of this seems to fly in the face of making cuts. After all, cuts prevent opportunities for student-athletes. How can an athlete grow if he or she is cut from a team or program? Not to mention, parents who call to complain about their child being cut often say, “They will be happy to just be on the team.”

This sounds odd, but cutting kids can be beneficial for the team, athlete, parent and coach. Here are four examples of how.

1. Athletes who sit the bench build resentment.

Many student-athletes who do not play develop resentment on many levels. Student-athletes are asked to make sacrifices for their team, program, coach and school. They sacrifice time, jobs, social life and many normal aspects of teenage life. Many student-athletes delay getting their driver’s license because they play multiple sports and their schedule does not allow them to take drivers education.

We ask them to make these sacrifices and come to practice each day, run, sweat and work through burning muscles and lungs, and for what? So that in front of their school, friends and family they can sit on the bench? The reality for most kids who don’t play is that they build resentment. They resent the coach. They resent the team, but more importantly they resent the game.

I had a player write me a letter outlining how they were made fun of each day at lunch for sitting the bench. They were teased in the halls when they were dressed up for game day. They told me how they hated coming to practices and games knowing they would not play. As a result, they began to hate the game and stopped playing all together after high school, because their love of the sport was lost by sitting the bench.

Ask yourself how it would feel to go to work every day, do your best and perform all the tasks your boss asked of you. But when Friday comes, you have no idea if you will be paid. Playing time is payment for our student-athletes. It’s their reward for doing the tasks we ask.

By no means am I advocating for equal playing time. I’m advocating for predictable roles and expectations for playing time. High school sports should and must be competitive. Competition is a fact of life and a reality for our student-athletes beyond the walls of our schools, gyms and fields. Establishing clear roles that define the parameters of playing time opportunities is the job of the coach before any student-athlete ever enters a contest.

2. Establish a predictable philosophy for team selection.

Your philosophy for choosing teams should be consistent from year to year. For example, some programs allow juniors to play on junior varsity teams, while others do not. It all depends on the numbers for your program. However, if you have to make cuts, consider the junior year the key factor.

If a player is not varsity caliber as a junior, it probably means you should cut them. If all things are equal between a sophomore and a junior with respect to ability, talent and skill, go with the sophomore. Upperclassmen are not typically OK with freshmen and sophomores playing over them while they sit on the bench. If players know and understand that you have a philosophy about juniors on JV teams, then you have a baseline expectation that players and parents can use to prepare for tryouts.

3. Other opportunities are available for athletes.

Kids today have outside options to play sports. From club to recreation sports, there are more options for kids than ever before. We all know how club sports have changed the landscape of high school athletics in the past 20 years. From fall baseball and indoor soccer to summer softball and baseball, there are great alternatives out there for kids to get involved. Sports that lend themselves to cuts usually have other opportunities for playing.

Many coaches in high schools lament the fact that too many kids already have a recreational expectation of competitive high school sports. Parents can feel the same way. They expect equal playing time.

Do your homework before you need to make cuts. Get the information about the local clubs and provide contact information to those programs to give to parents if they have questions about alternatives.

4. Keeping kids can lose kids.

I recently saw a coach keep a large number of players for their program out of fear that another sport, new to the school, would take away kids. They kept many kids who rarely ever played. The end result was most of those kids, who were benched, defected anyway to the new sport at that school. So the intent of the coach backfired. They kept kids hoping to keep them away from the new program. However, lack of playing time drove them away.

If word gets out that you are keeping kids but not playing them, you will have kids who don’t come out for your team. It’s the same as small college athletics. If word gets out about over-recruiting, then kids don’t come. Keeping kids for the idea of building up numbers is the wrong motivation. They will realize that they are just numbers, and that their role in the program is to fill spots. The result is that they will consider other options if they see and feel that they are not valued in the program beyond building up a roster.

Some schools and school boards have adopted no-cut policies. Just go talk to a coach who has coached at a school where this is the case. Many of these schools are not able to provide competitive experiences as a result. No-cut policies have been implemented all across the country. However, some schools, like Hudson High School (Massachusetts), have recently reversed course on no-cut policies. The Boston Globe reported in April 2014 that lobbying by students, coaches and parents pushed for cuts in certain sports and felt the process was warranted and would make the school’s teams more competitive.

Honesty first

We owe it to our student-athletes to provide genuine opportunities for success through athletics. Predictable playing time, earning the opportunities, and fulfilling a meaningful role within a team or group best reflects what happens in life beyond high school. Nobody gets a job or gets into college just because they filled out the application. You have to earn the spot. You have to be the best person for the job. And, you must fulfill the role you’re given.

We do a disservice to student-athletes when we don’t cut. We are not preparing them for life beyond the walls of school. And we create a false sense of accomplishment, which can lead to resentment, a poor attitude and a lifetime of negativity.

Cuts are necessary to prepare kids for life beyond school. If we do it with direction, care and purpose, and we communicate with care and purpose, then it benefits everyone involved.

Josh Hils, M.Ed. is a veteran high school coach of 18 years and is a girls varsity soccer coach. He also develops coaches through his coaching education & development program, Picking Up the Whistle.

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