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Best Practices for Structuring Tryouts

By Joe Meloni, 07/14/15, 2:15PM MDT

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Best Practices for Structuring Tryouts

Tryouts are a part of youth hockey at almost every level. As players grow, they become even more common, and for coaches, they become critical ways of identifying talent. But tryouts can be stressful, and if they aren’t run properly, can be a missed opportunity.

Ultimately, the goal of any tryout is to find the best place for each young player to develop, and most importantly, have fun. Obviously coaches want to form teams that will be well positioned for success on the ice, too. Teams need a mix of talent, work ethic and character, and the way a coach runs his or her tryout will help reveal these qualities.

“I’m looking at the players’ skills, instincts and heart,” said Chuck Gridley, coach-in-chief of USA Hockey’s New York District. “In addition, I want to see what kind of person they are, and how they fit into the chemistry of the team.”

Finding Competitiveness

One of the most important aspects of hockey is its competitiveness. Hockey is made up of 1-on-1 battles all over the ice, and often, compete level is the deciding factor of who wins those battles.

One of the best ways to find the right players at a tryout is to put them in position to demonstrate their competitiveness. Incorporate drills that encourage races for pucks, board play, small-area games, 1-on-1 battles and others that force players to show off both their talent and willingness to work hard and win for their teams.

“Competitive battle drills are simple but telling,” said Chris Nagy, assistant boys’ hockey coach at St. Mary’s High School in Lynn, Massachusetts. “If I have two kids similar in skill, I’ll throw a puck in the corner four or five times to see who comes out with it. I want a high compete level from everyone, and tryouts need use every bit of time to identify the kids who have it.”

One of the oldest maxims in hockey is “practice how you play.” By setting up a tryout to focus on competition, players will understand what’s expected of them and work hard to appeal to coaches.

Moreover, adding a competitive element to hockey helps keep the whole process more fun for the players. Just skating around, shooting and passing can be fun, of course, but young players like to compete against each other – they like to win. Players work harder when there’s a clear objective to a drill or any other part of the tryout, and, as a coach, you’re more likely to get the best the player can offer.

Coaches Should Be Involved

Players should not only be evaluated during tryouts, but they should receive some coaching as well to point out simple adjustments they can make to improve their game. The more time spent interacting with the players also helps coaches learn more about them as people.

“You can’t learn what kind of drive or fire a kid has from a basic tryout,” Nagy said. “Coaches should get down on ice level and talk to some kids and find out a little bit more about their personalities off the ice.”

Equal Opportunity and Avoiding Favoritism

Tryouts should also be designed to give every player equal opportunity to shine. This is an important aspect for coaches to build into their tryouts. Just because a player makes an early impression with more foot speed or a great shot doesn’t mean he or she should be the only focus of the event and the coaches should fawn over him or her. Coaches need to see as much as possible of every player at a tryout to come away with the best sense of who should be on which team.

“I think the biggest issue to try to avoid is the perception of favoritism,” Gridley said. “I always try to see everyone and keep the process as unbiased as possible. I think it’s important to look at your process through the eyes of the players and parents as well.

Making sure every player gets his or her chance helps coaches just as well.

“The process has to be designed to give every player equal time to show what they are capable of,” Gridley added. “Once the initial decisions are made, you may need to get a closer look at a handful of players on the bubble.”

Every tryout will attract a few players who clearly belong, but filling out a whole roster takes more than just the most talented players.

“It’s about building a team and deciding between the kids in the middle of the pack that is most challenging.”

Provide Feedback

After the tryout, there’s also a chance for coaches to help some of the players they decided not to select.

“I think it’s important to give every player who does not make the team the opportunity to sit down with you after tryouts to discuss what they might want to improve as a player,” Gridley said. “I think this helps give some players closure on the process, as well as giving them some information to help them improve as players. Like everything we do in youth hockey, it’s about the kids. They might not be selected for the team, but they should have the opportunity to benefit from the process.”

Tryouts are an important aspect of coaching young hockey players. In many cases, it’s the first chance a coach has to build a relationship with a young player and start a relationship with his or her family. Structuring tryouts with an eye to getting the most out of players and learning everything you can gives coaches the best opportunity for success.

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