Let’s face it, anyway you slice it tryouts are the lifeblood of a hockey team.
Whether you are holding a week-long training camp or a few isolated evaluation skates, tryouts are the foundation upon which your season will be built.
The tough part is that tryouts can be just as stressful for a coach as they are for players……make the right decisions and you could easily be headed down the road to success, make the wrong ones, and you might find yourself dreading that drive to the rink each week.
Surprisingly, there still seems to be very little information available to help successfully guide coaches through the tryout process, so here are some tryout tips for coaches to get the most out of your tryout experience.
1. Be Prepared
It goes without saying, but the tryout process doesn’t begin once the players step onto the ice.
As a coach you need to have your tryout fully planned out in advance and be sure that you have taken the time to consider the unavoidable hiccups that come along with running the event.
Schedule of Events
Every tryout is different but be sure to take the time to develop a schedule of activities that is logical and that will allow your staff to gather the information that they will need to effectively evaluate each player. Also, be sure that this schedule is clearly communicated to players and parents so that there are no surprises once the tryout begins.
Equipment is usually the last thing on a coach’s mind when they get to the rink for a tryout, so make sure that you have everything that you need prepared beforehand. Some things like pucks, jerseys and water bottles are easy to remember but others like clip boards, pens and evaluation sheets are often overlooked.
If you spend half the time figuring out what is where and when to use it, then you are missing valuable time observing the players. Having everything ready frees your mind to focus on the task at hand.
Tryouts involve a lot of moving parts, so it’s important that you take the time to plan each of these out before the day of your event.
Planning in advance will help ensure that the event is organized and that the process is as smooth and seamless as possible….this is especially true for things like your registration desk, jersey distribution and locker room assignments.
And save the long speeches and explanations for the locker room or meeting room. Ice time is for evaluating players.
2. Be Professional
The old adage, “you only get one chance to make a first impression” is as true for your tryout process as for anything else with your program.
In all regards this is your first event of the season, and for new families, this is where they are going to start forming opinions about your team and your organization.
Whatever culture and climate that you hope to establish will be set by the attitude and behavior of the staff during tryouts. Be aware of the image the staff is portraying through their dress and their communication with players and parents. Always ensure that you are modeling the behavior that you expect from your players and that your actions align with the standards that you hope to establish for your team.
Tryouts will set the tone for the entire season and, if you are a new coach, may set the tone for how the organization perceives you going forward.
3. Staff Buy-in is Critical
The head coach may be the official face of the program but every adult from the assistant coaches to team managers and schedulers need to work together throughout the season and tryouts are no exception.
Take the time to meet with these individuals beforehand (including any additional evaluators who may be helping out) and clearly explain the tryout process and your expectations for everyone who is going to be helping to run the event.
4. Know What You Want
Running a smooth tryout is unfortunately only a small part of the process, the really difficult thing is making decisions about who to keep and who to let go.
While it would be great if there was a one-size fits all model for how to evaluate talent at tryouts, like most things in hockey, this simply isn’t the case. Here however are a few things to consider which might make your selection process a bit easier.
Use A Depth Chart
Depending on the level that you coach, your 1st line center and your 4th line wing may require a very different skill set. Before you begin evaluations, have a clear understanding of what you are looking for out of each of the positions on your team.
Once you have this developed, it’s a lot easier to look for players in a tryout that fill one of these open positions.
Practice Player vs. Gamer
Let’s be honest, some players look fantastic running through drills in a practice or tryout, but they completely disappear once they set foot in a game. Critical skills like hockey sense, compete level and grit are often overlooked at a tryout but are typically the things that separate the game players from the practice ones.
Try to schedule some game scenario or competition drills into your tryouts so that you can evaluate a player’s work ethic and grittiness. Also consider adding in controlled scrimmages and small area games that will help showcase creativity, hockey sense and ice awareness.
Remember, once you sign a player they are going to be part of your team for at least the remainder of the season. The way they conduct themselves on the ice, in the locker room and around the rink will not only reflect on the staff and the organization but will have a direct impact on the success of your team. Keep an eye out during tryouts for any clues about a player’s character, and if you have reservations, it may be time to start looking in another direction.
You Get the Family With The Player
A wise person once told me “you don’t just marry the person, you marry the family” and this is especially true when selecting players at tryouts.
Someone might be the nicest and most gifted player on the ice, however if their family is going to negatively impact your operation of the team, you might want to think twice before offering them a roster spot.
While this may seem like a negative approach to take for a promising youth player, you may want to use it as a teachable moment for the parent. Nothing wrong with being honest and up front with them that their reputation as a parent is having a negative effect on their child’s prospects. It’s a hard conversation to have but would be in the best interests of the kid.
5. Run Drills With Purpose
If you can’t identify the reason you are running a drill or the specific skill that the drill is designed to evaluate, then you shouldn’t run the drill.
The best way to do this is to keep the drills simple. At least at first.
If you want to evaluate speed, run sprint races. If you want to evaluate shooting ability run a simple pass from the corner and shoot drill.
If you have staff other than yourself, then they should be the ones passing the puck (assuming they can do it consistently). This allows you to isolate one skill at a time and not have to worry whether the player passing the puck made a good pass or even if they purposefully gave a bad pass to someone competing for a spot.
Three on three games are also a great way to see specific skills because it opens up the ice and puts more emphasis on individual skills rather than reliance on teamwork. That’s not to say that teamwork is unimportant, but you need to evaluate individual skills first.
Save the more complicated drills for later in the tryouts when you have already narrowed the field down a little.
6. Be Fair & Honest
Once of the biggest mistakes that coaches make during tryouts are saying things that aren’t true or making promises that they can’t keep.
The tryout process is stressful enough for players and parents without them having to worry about the accuracy of the information that is presented. While it’s almost a certainty that some families will leave your tryout frustrated or disappointed, don’t compound that issue by giving them a reason to question your integrity as a coach.
Be upfront, direct and honest with each family, and even if they don’t like hearing what you have to say, you may be surprised by how receptive they are to your candor.
7. Provide Feedback
Whenever a player “puts them self out there” for a tryout they deserve to get some direct feedback on their performance.
This is especially true for players that you are not selecting for your roster. Ideally every player at tryouts would be afforded an opportunity to meet with the coaching staff after the event so that they could get some direct, face-to-face feedback about their tryout. This may not always feasible, but in the least, coaches should provide some opportunity for players to get feedback from the event.
How this situation might look will differ from team to team, but if you plan on simply posting a list of the names of players who made you roster, consider allowing the other players to set up a time to meet with you later in the week, or even send you an email for some written feedback from the staff.
For players who don’t have an opportunity to roster with another team within your organization you might even offer to go the extra mile and suggest some other teams that they could consider.
Share Your Best Tryout Tips
For all the coaches out there that have been through this process…what are your best tryout tips?
Leave them in the comments below so others can benefit from your knowledge and experience.