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Sunday, August 4, 2013

REFLECTIONS: Tryouts—cutting the dreams and potential of many kids?

Here's a concept for one to ponder–sports for little ones, and even teenagers, should be FUN! Isn't that really why kids beg mommy and daddy to pony-up the cash for all the equipment, registrations, and other countless miscellaneous charges associated with organized sports? The kids just want to have fun. Winning in a competitive environment can definitely deliver the goods. But even losing against a better team or competitor can be fun as well. It is all about presentation and what gets emphasized by the coaching staff, organization and parents. Learning, along with both skill and character building, take place from wins AND losses. As long as no one gets hurt, everyone who desires gets to play, all is done fairly, and someone or some team has a better day than another, then we will have winners and non-winners. The only LOSERS are those who perhaps desired to participate but did not even get the chance. This is where I begin to make my case for no-cut policies in sports. 

I am far from expert when it comes to most team-oriented mainstream sports and the way they handle thinning the pack. But what I do know is that many players try out for the high school tennis teams and only a select few make the cut. When counting the typical compliment of players selected, we see numbers 1, 2, and 3 singles and number 1 and 2 doubles as the most common varsity positions. Let's assume that the JV team has the same complement. Yet there are dozens of potential tennis players who are hungry for an activity they can enjoy with their friends, and yes even family, when the glow of high school sports has diminished. But for many, the flicker of participation is snuffed out before it even has a chance. Whatever happened to a time when sports were what you joined–not tried-out for–and provided the opportunity for anyone who burned with the desire to learn and grow from the experience the chance to do so?

I know it may be unrealistic to think that anyone that wants to catch a pass, score a goal, or hit an ace can, as Nike® likes to say, "Just Do It."  After all, reality clearly dictates the limitations of time as well as the inadequacies of restricted coaching staff, trainers and facilities. This kind of scarcity mentality however feeds on the fear that for some to have more others must have less. For example, when teams insist on giving their most talented players the majority of field time, others more athletically challenged sit the benches, wait, and hope for a chance to play and, dare we say it, have fun!

Getting back more specifically to tennis, it seems that the concept of no-cut is not all that radical after all. According to an April 15, 2013 news release from the National Federation of State High School Associations (NFHS),  the United States Tennis Association (USTA) has registered more than 3,600 coaches who have implemented a no-cut initiative, affecting more than 130,000 high school students since the inception of the no-cut programs in 2006. The NFHS, the national leadership organization for high school athletic and performing arts programs, has partnered with the USTA with the goal of attracting new supporters of the no-cut policy through the 51 NFHS member state associations This includes more than 19,000 high schools and almost 7.7 million participants in high school sports.

Here are few of the top reasons, listed by the USTA on their website, for offering a no-cut tennis program:

  • One week of tryouts is not enough for a coach to know who the best players will be in four years. Coaches are often pleasantly surprised by the contributions made by individuals considered to have less potential.
  • Children who are cut from sport programs are almost always the least skilled or those who have discipline problems. It is precisely these youngsters who are in need of an opportunity to grow through sport. “ Frank L. Smoll and Ronald E. Smith, Sports and Your Child, second edition; Warde Publishers, Inc. 2005
  • No-cut programs open more opportunities for cooperation with parents, school and community that can result in much needed booster support as well as a built-in fan base for team matches
  • Giving students the opportunity to be on a team with friends and representing their high school can provide a positive and memorable experience that will benefit them long into adulthood.
  • It's the right thing to do - every child should have the opportunity to engage in healthy, lifelong activities in a safe and supportive environment with their peers.

On the court, I work diligently with students in Gloucester Twp., beginning at age 5, to help them develop skills, but perhaps more importantly the love, of the lifetime sport called tennis. Research has shown that tennis players score high in vigor, optimism, and self-esteem, and lower in depression, anger, confusion, anxiety and tension than other athletes and non-athletes. Having worked with hundreds of players over my many decades of teaching, I truly believe that what I offer is a gift that these kids can take with them into their future. How unfortunate is it for this gift of excitement and optimism to be squelched in high school by a system that limits how many can have a chance to play. 

Let me leave you with this, a coach's testimonial, once again from the USTA website: 
"We only had two courts and I had 21 kids turn out,'' Escame recalled of the 1969 season. "After the first week, I wrote down 16 names, and said if your name was on that list, you made the team. This girl came up to me in the hall and she said, "Mr. Escame, my name isn't on the list." And she started crying, and I couldn't look at her. I said, "You're right on the cusp. If you go out and practice, you're sure to make the team next year". Then she said, "If I'm not on the team, how can I practice?" I made up my mind after that season that I would keep everyone."
– Steve Escame, a no-cut high school tennis coach of 34 years with over 500 tennis victories

Is this the scene we want played-out in our schools or even our independent sports organizations? Can't we find a better way to encourage the potential of all kids who have the desire to participate in today's sports?

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