Softening The Draft

By Fred Engh

No matter what the sport or the age of the children, conducting skill assessments, tryouts, drafts—or whatever label you want to apply to the process—in creating balanced teams in youth-sports programs can be a real challenge for recreation professionals.

And it’s really stressful for the kids taking part.

In a recent email from a recreation professional seeking some guidance on the issue, she wrote:

“I am in the process of trying to find another way to conduct my basketball assessment/tryouts. Currently, we give each kid a number, and they complete drills individually. The parents hate it because they say we terrify the kids, and it’s a lot of pressure on the kids when everyone in the gym is looking at them as they go through the drills. I typically have about 100 plus kids per division trying out at one time.”

During my days as a recreation professional, I encountered a similar problem during baseball sign-ups. My staff and I let each kid perform different skills, and it was done in front of all of the coaches in the league.

On one occasion, there was a youngster who had no skills whatsoever. Clearly, he was new to the sport and lacked coordination. As he tried the catching skill, he missed every ball thrown to him, though he was trying to do his very best.

One of the coaches said loudly enough for all to hear, “Any of you coaches want him?”

The boy was humiliated and went home crying. And to this day, I wonder how much emotional damage this youngster suffered—all because of this one moment in his young life.

So after this horrific display, my staff and I immediately made some changes. For all future assessments, we set up stations and had a volunteer at each station rating each player’s skills on a 1-to-5 scale. We ran all the stations simultaneously to help take away the fear factor of having players perform one at a time with all eyes on them.

We checked in with some Certified Youth Sports Administrators (CYSAs) to get their take on how to handle skill assessments. These individuals who have earned the CYSA credential comprise a group of professionals worldwide who are committed to raising the professionalism in youth sports. Here’s what they had to say:

Tracey Lawrence-Thomas, Reservation and Events Coordinator for the Detroit Parks and Recreation Department Northwest Activities Center: “When conducting tryouts, it may be better to have stations with different coaches, where more than one athlete is participating at the same time. That should take some of the pressure off. You can also do what we call the ’skills and drills games.’ The athletes seem to have fun doing these and really don't realize they are being evaluated. If there are four teams of 25, and they complete a circuit of drills, it may be less intimidating. It will also make the parents feel better. Several coaches will be needed to help out, and each will have a group of athletes to watch. Make sure the athletes have numbers and that each coach is given random numbers for evaluating.”

Brent Peintner, Director of the Cheney (Kan.) Recreation Commission: “I would not call them ”basketball evaluations,’ nor a try-out, etc. Look at it more as free instructional sessions that help enhance a child’s experience in basketball or a “kick off to the program clinic.” Have multiple drills going on at the same time (i.e., shooting station, dribbling station, etc.) where it is not all on one kid in front of all. Have a leader or instructor who teaches a skill and then all kids get to practice that drill. Or at least teach that skill at each station so it is more about teaching the kid rather than a try-out.”

Ricardo Ceja, Recreation Services Manager for the Los Angeles Parks & Recreation Department: “Most of our sites allow the coach to bring in three freezes (his/her own players). The other seven are obtained through a blind draft. I suggest doing basketball evaluations only on certain divisions that need it. As a park director, I need to know the play level of returning players; stats are important and help greatly in knowing the skill level of players. Pick drills that are easy to learn and do, like shooting from various spots and lay-ups with one or two hands. Have them rebound a basketball, run and jog, from baseline to baseline. Players with a higher playing level will complete the easy drills faster and with not great effort.

“Players who are frozen don’t need to go through the evaluation process. Pass out the numbers when coaches are beginning to select their players. This will make coaches work on remembering players whom they want to draft. I suggest doing a blind draft. It’s much better with less work and stress on all staff and players.”

Fred Engh is founder and CEO of the National Alliance for Youth Sports (NAYS) in West Palm Beach, Fla. He can be reached via email at To join more than 3,000 communities by starting a NAYS chapter, visit or contact Emmy Martinez at or (800) 729-2057.