Volleyball Tryouts: Making Cuts

High school and club volleyball coaches have a very difficult time when it comes to cutting players from their teams. Some teams have so few players that the coaches can only dream about being selective. But for those coaches that do have to make cuts, it’s never easy.

This article is about building a competitive program, and specifically, building a competitive high school program. Some teams may opt for inclusiveness over competitiveness, where cuts aren’t made and/or where everyone on the team gets nearly equal playing time. This article is not about that type of program.

I knew of a girls varsity team that had eight seniors, and only four of them were in the regular rotation. The regular rotation consisted of four seniors, three juniors, and a sophomore. That meant that four seniors (and their parents) were unhappy about their playing time throughout the season. They did get some playing time when they played the lower teams in their section, but that took away valuable match experience from some of the sophomores that needed to get experience for their next two years. It would have been better to have cut four of those seniors after their sophomore year.

Unless your program is so small or so new that you’re begging for players, each successive year of a particular class should probably involve the whittling down of players within that class. Some players will eliminate themselves from contention as they decide that they don’t want to devote so much time to volleyball, or as they realize that they won’t be playing much. Some may need to be told the difficult news that the coaches don’t see them being able to eventually contribute at the varsity level.

In other cases, it may be that cuts need to be made for the overall health of the team. That may be due to skill level, or it may be for the sake of team dynamics (see “attitude”).

Whatever the reasons for making cuts, coaches need to make their decisions based on the overarching goal of putting together the best team for that particular season. But also, for high school teams, where the underclassmen will likely be returning the following year, coaches need to make decisions this season to put together the best team for the next season (and the next, and the next, etc.).

In my experience, initially as a high school player and now as a high school coach, I’ve come to the conclusion that a reasonable player distribution for a typical 12-player varsity team would be:

  • 3 or 4 seniors
  • 3 or 4 juniors
  • 2 or 3 sophomores
  • 1 or 2 freshmen

Of course, this isn’t a hard-and-fast rule; ultimately, your team needs to be made up of the best mix of players for that particular season. But it’s important to avoid being too heavy on seniors such that you’re not preparing the younger players for the following year. If you dress more than 12 players for varsity, then the numbers per grade can obviously go up, but I wanted to show a relative distribution based on a 12-player varsity roster.

Freshman on the varsity team don’t necessarily have to even be good enough yet to play at that level; their training can be taking place in JV. But dressing for varsity, warming up with the team, and going to all the varsity tournaments is all good experience for them. It’s also a “reward” for being the best freshman and presumably the most promising players in their class.

Some or all of the sophomores on the varsity may be still playing JV, but if they are not yet regular contributors to the varsity matches, they should be at least adequate players at the varsity level, and should see some playing time throughout the season. Assuming that your JV and varsity program has plenty of players, it might be the case that not all sophomores will be good enough to even make the varsity team.

As for the juniors on the varsity team, this is where the rubber meets the road. If a junior wasn’t good enough to make the varsity team as a sophomore, then that player should have developed considerably as a sophomore and be ready to contribute at the varsity level as a junior. If that player hasn’t developed into a player that can contribute on the varsity squad, or for that matter, if a sophomore that did make the varsity the previous year has not continued to develop at the rate that you had hoped, then this is when they need to be told this truth and probably be cut. It will be a difficult conversation with the player, and may turn into a conversation with the parents, but it will lower a coach’s stress level for the next two seasons.

This may sound harsh, but it’s the reality for programs that want to be competitive.

For seniors, the ground work should already be in place for them to be the leaders on the team in terms of talent and experience. You want to avoid having seniors on your team that are not going to be able to make a substantial contribution that year. If they’re not among your best players, then trying to find opportunities to get them in out of charity is actually taking away valuable playing time and experience for your younger players that will be around the following year.

Having to cut a senior that has been playing all along in previous years is probably a coaching problem: as I’ve indicated above, that player probably should have been cut in a previous year. A junior should be on the varsity team if they’re going to be able to contribute that year or if you know for sure that they will be able to contribute in a big way during their next year as a senior. So, if a player has been playing in their younger years and is not coming along in their development by the tryout period of their junior year, then that’s the time to be honest with them and to cut them. Not doing this at the beginning of their junior season is just kicking the can down the road, and it will be more painful at the beginning of their senior season.

This doesn’t apply to seniors that are trying out for a team and that have no prior volleyball experience. If you have a great athlete (or tall player) that can play a significant role during their only year of playing and if that role cannot be filled by a younger play that will be back the next year, then by all means keep them on the team. But if someone is trying out as a senior and is not going to significantly help the team, then the coach should either cut them or explain to them that they’ll be a practice player only and to not expect playing time (unless you’re scheduled to play a really bad team on Senior Night).

For the JV, the team can be as large as you can accommodate. Junior high players may need to be cut from making the JV team, but since many players are still learning and growing, it’s good to give them the benefit of the doubt during their freshman year and to a lesser extent, in their sophomore year. Each year after 8th grade, some whittling down should probably occur.

My philosophy for a JV team is that it’s a training ground and a very long tryout for varsity. Players need to know up front that making the JV team as a freshman or sophomore is not a guarantee that they’ll ever make the varsity team. JV is their opportunity to learn and train toward possibly making the varsity team at some point.

If you can manage having 12 freshmen and 8 sophomores on a JV team, then that allows you to watch and see which players develop and which ones don’t. The rub is that all 8 of those sophomores should probably not be moved on to varsity as juniors, and some of those freshman should not be moved on as sophomores. If you’re lucky enough to have a bunch of players interested in playing as freshmen, you have to be willing to cut some of those players at the beginning of their sophomore year if you can already tell that they’re not going to eventually be big contributors to your varsity team as juniors or seniors. Most of that criteria will probably be based on raw athletic talent and attitude (teachability), but also to how well they pick up the volleyball skills and strategy that they’re taught as freshmen.

Making these types of decisions and cuts early should avoid having to cut any seasoned players leading into their senior year. It should also avoid having unhappy non-playing juniors and seniors on the bench, and will hopefully keep the really bad attitudes off the varsity team (and out of the stands).

Coach on!

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