Necessary Evils

Making Cuts on Athletic Teams – the Necessary Evil

By Mark Rerick on October 28, 2015 Coaches

Cut [kuht] – (verb) – to separate from the main body, or to abridge or shorten. But, when it comes to athletics, perhaps this is a better definition to use: Cutting [kuht-ing] – (adjective) – wounding the feelings severely.

I think it’s important to point this fact out first: nobody likes the process of cuts. Athletes don’t like knowing that they might be told they aren’t good enough; parents don’t like knowing that their children might not be good enough; and coaches HATE having to tell students who are motivated and excited about playing that they aren’t good enough. For our sports that cut, I can say without hesitation that cut day is one of the toughest of the season on everybody. So why do we have cuts?

As much as we’d like to base our entire program in just meeting our three department goals (having fun, learning how to compete, and learning the sport), the reality of an athletic department is that all of our stakeholders – athletes, coaches, parents, public – still expect us to be able to compete with the intent to win games. The average John Q. Public doesn’t call me because he thinks our teams aren’t having enough fun. That means that we need to get our athletes as good as we can get them, put our best athletes on a team together, and coach the heck out of them. In order to do this, we try to clearly define our competitive levels.

For our Varsity team, our coaches select the athletes who they believe will give the team the best opportunity to compete on any given night. It’s important to note that this doesn’t necessarily mean the team consists of the most talented individuals. Sometimes, an athlete blessed with talent has difficulty fitting a specific role on the team and needs more time to grow within a team concept. I often get calls/emails from parents who are upset because “my kid” is a better player than “so and so” and should be on the varsity. I won’t engage parents in this conversation, but if I did, I would point out that several different characteristics lead to a team being successful.

We use our Junior Varsity level as an opportunity to prepare athletes for varsity next year. It can be difficult to predict this roster considering the various rates of growth and maturity among high school students, but put as simply as possible, this level consists of our next most competitive group of athletes. As an AD, this is the level that causes me the highest level of stress. In essence, we’re asking our head coaches to guess at who might be the best suited for varsity in the next season. It’s a task that’s nearly impossible, and we’ll never get it 100% right.

The harsh truth... is that we can only house so many students in each level while still providing meaningful instruction and competition. Much like how a math classroom with 30 students would be tough, we can’t expect a basketball coach to effectively teach 20+ students on his/her own. I have yet to meet a coach who enjoys cutting kids from their programs, but coaches understand that it’s necessary to remain competitive. At the lower levels, particularly Freshmen and C Squad, keeping too many participants on the roster spreads practice reps and game minutes too thinly among our athletes, hindering their competitive growth. At the upper levels, we can only roster a finite number of varsity athletes, and we need the JV team to build our future varsity athletes.

As much as we’d like to find a place for all students who wish to compete, we simply can’t. Even if we chose to run multiple freshmen and C teams solely as participation opportunities for students, we would still run into two major problems: (1) Funding, and (2) finding enough other teams to play. Using our highest cut sport, hockey, as an example, it would cost us roughly $30,000 to add a second level of JV hockey to both of our high schools. Beyond that, we would be the only schools in our conference with a second JV team, so we’d be scouring the countryside for teams we could play. The added expense along with the difficulties in scheduling, travel, and finding ice time makes it difficult to justify additional levels.

While it’s nice to know the reasons behind the necessity of cuts, knowing the “why” doesn’t make the “how” any easier. To that, I offer some brief tips to the main groups involved in cuts.

Coaches – just be honest and professional in dealing with the students. You know that they don’t want to hear that they’re cut, but it’s better to be open and honest about why they are being cut. If there’s something an underclassman needs to improve upon, tell him/her. If it’s a senior who just isn’t talented enough to help the team, tell him/her. It will be a tough conversation, but being blunt and honest is the best way to move forward.

Parents – cuts are probably tougher on you than on your kids or the coaches. In the past few months, I’ve seen various versions of the same sign floating around the internet that reads, “Your child’s success or lack of success in sports does not indicate what kind of parent you are. But, having an athlete that is coachable, respectful, a great teammate, mentally tough, resilient and who tries their best is a direct reflection of your parenting.”

I get that it’s tough for parents. When your son or daughter gets cut, it’s easy to take it as a condemnation of how you’ve raised your child. As I’ve mentioned before, much of your kid’s ability to play sports occurred at conception. While having an incredible work ethic can help close the gap to more talented athletes, it can’t completely replace genetic gifts. It’s ok if your son or daughter isn’t one of the best players in the school. Help them find other stuff that they’re good at.

I like to use math to prepare parents for the inevitability of cuts. For example – my oldest son plays hockey at the Mite level. After their regular season, they were given the option to play for another month as part of a brief travel season. Sixty kids decided to keep playing – 4 teams of 15 kids each. Our teams were out of town at a jamboree where I heard one parent make the comment about how cool it will be to see these kids playing together on their high school teams in the future. Here’s where math comes in handy to cushion the blow of future cuts.

High school varsity teams can only roster 20 players. We have two high schools, so we roster 40 varsity players each year. That means that in 9 years, even if (IF!) our varsity teams were made entirely out of seniors (which would be these Mite kids in 9 years), there would still be 20 kids from the current Mite teams who won’t make our high school teams. Add to that the reality that there will probably be 60 travel mites next year and 60 travel mites the year after that, and we’re looking at a MINIMUM of 140 kids in that three year span who mathematically can’t make the varsity teams.

That’s the main reason why I don’t/won’t encourage athletes to specialize in a sport. Unfortunately, because of the hockey culture in our town, many of those 180 kids are going to specialize in hockey in an attempt to make the varsity team and/or earn the ability to play college hockey. It’s important to remember that your time and money commitment is for your kids to participate with the chance to improve; it’s not a guarantee of anything more than that. I repeat: the money and time you’re spending on youth sports is buying nothing more than the opportunity to participate with the chance to improve. Even if 180 hockey kids in town all spend $6,000+ in the next five years on camps and club teams, we can still only roster 40 varsity players.

Athletes – how will you respond to being cut from a team? I think it’s fair to assume that you will be sad/mad to some extent depending on your level of commitment to the team. Getting cut from the team, much like being assigned to a smaller role on the team, isn’t an indictment on you as a person. How you respond to getting cut, however, will speak volumes about who you are as a person. If you’re an underclassman, will you actively seek ways to get better at the skills you’re lacking? If you recognize that you lack the natural ability to advance in this sport, will you actively seek something else to do to represent your school? If you’re an upperclassman, can you still actively support the team in some other manner? Can you lend your knowledge to the younger teammates to improve their abilities or their experiences? Can you use this set back as an opportunity to become a better, stronger person for the future? All of those characteristics are transferable skills into the adult world.

August 4, 2016

Making the case for cuts

By Josh Hils

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.

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. You have to fill the need and fulfil the role you are 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. We create a false sense of accomplishment, which can lead to resentment, a poor attitude and a lifetime of negativity.

If we are charged with preparing student-athletes for life beyond school, then cuts are necessary. 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.