Tryouts and Our Deepest Fear

By John Kessel | Nov. 11, 2009, 8:32 a.m. (ET)

Tryouts can bring out our deep fears, as the talent pyramid begins its inexorable narrowing. From six elementary-school teams to a couple junior-high teams; from those junior highs to the one high-school program, and onward into the college level; no athlete wants to feel the pain of inadequacy. For boys, it means failing in the climb to be kings of the hill. For girls it is even worse. It means they are cut from that network and banished for not being good enough or tall enough, not in the eyes of their peers, but in the eyes of adults who are making such selections.  

Each athlete already has had practice with this in peer selection of teams on the playgrounds at recess and lunch. University of North Carolina soccer coach Anson Dorrance even uses the order of selection of teammates for small-sided and full-scrimmage games in his competitive cauldron, for peers know better than coaches the true worth of each player to the whole of the team. No one wants to be the last one chosen, but at least on the playground, you did get picked and everyone played.  When it comes to school and clubs, it is too often not the case.


Now we can be a sport of cutting kids, but I am going to challenge every club and school program to come up with ways NOT to cut kids. Be a program that is more focused on what the values of sport can teach us and not in culling kids to form the "best program" in your region. The best programs, in my humble opinion, embrace diversity not just in height, but in skill levels. They measure their success in no small part by how many younger players stay with their program and continue to play after they have left high school. With all sports combined, it has been found that 5 percent of high school athletes are still playing the sport they played in high school. Give them a love of the game in your program and you should see them playing adult USAV, park and rec, and YMCA sports when they leave college.

Here in Colorado Springs several years ago I got with our largest school district and created a way to keep those junior high players who were being cut. We had 7-8th grade programs with 24 slots, and more than 100 players trying out at a junior high. The leadership of the athletic director and key PE teachers allowed us to create school teams at the No. 3, No. 4, No. 5 and even No. 6 team level. While the No. 1 (8th grade) and No. 2 (7th grade) teams practiced Monday through Thursday, the No. 3-6 teams practiced once a week. In some cases, the additional team for that day would simply copy what the coach of the 7th grade was doing, training on the third court that was there. For the gyms where only two regulation courts could go up, they divided the second court into two courts, which allows for the three teams to train after school. In other cases, they might practice two additional teams later, after the No. 1 and 2 teams, with parents helping do the coaching. On Saturdays, each school would host competition for a morning - with all the No. 3 teams competing at one school, all the No. 4s at another, etc. The cost was minimal, the refereeing provided by the players, a school volleyball T-shirt/jersey being the key to connecting these players to their important scholastic connections and network. Meanwhile these kids get to play and let the game teach the game and see what happens on the other end of the season.

A huge reason not to cut is the varying talent emergence of a child. Take this quiz by CLICKING HERE and see what I mean. There are great artists and writers who do not begin to excel until they are over half a century old. The athleticism of our sport lends itself best to the powers of a younger body, but the average age of our national teams are both in the mid 20s, a decade after high school. It is part of being committed to a growth mindset, rather than a fixed one, of effort and mastery, over the outcome of being selected by some "coaches" who are looking out for what is best for them. Some programs want only tall players, so if you are cut for "being too short" know that it is not how tall you are, but how good you are. CLICK HERE for more on that truth.

At one high school, half the kids who made the school team as freshmen came from the no-cut kidz league programming teams No. 3-6. The "Big House" facility here in town has also created a program called "BHip," which serves as an alternative for those cut from their junior program or who want a "tweener" program between youth volleyball the the full club experience. CLICK HERE for more information.


These five points on the "Fundamental Principles of Olympism," come from the Olympic Charter, which can be downloaded by CLICKING HERE. All volleyball clubs should know and conduct themselves according to these principles as they are founding concepts for ANY sport.   

1. Olympism is a philosophy of life, exalting and combining in a balanced whole the qualities of body, will and mind. Blending sport with culture and education, Olympism seeks to create a way of life based on the joy of effort, the educational value of good example and respect for universal fundamental ethical principles.

2. The goal of Olympism is to place sport at the service of the harmonious development of man, with a view to promoting a peaceful society concerned with the preservation of human dignity.

3. The Olympic Movement is the concerted, organised, universal and permanent action, carried out under the supreme authority of the IOC, of all individuals and entities who are inspired by the values of Olympism. It covers the five continents. It reaches its peak with the bringing together of the world's athletes at the great sports festival, the Olympic Games. Its symbol is five interlaced rings.

4. The practice of sport is a human right. Every individual must have the possibility of practicing sport, without discrimination of any kind and in the Olympic spirit, which requires mutual understanding with a spirit of friendship, solidarity and fair play. The organisation, administration and management of sport must be controlled by independent sports organisations.

5. Any form of discrimination with regard to a country or a person on grounds of race, religion, politics, gender or otherwise is incompatible with belonging to the Olympic Movement.


Tryouts teach many lessons, mostly about how actions speak far louder than words. You may have heard from a coach how talented an athlete you are. You may even have a letter from clubs saying that they want you to play for them. Those words mean little for some programs and a lot for others. It is the integrity of the people delivering the words that you must consider.

To each parent - You may wish for your daughter to play in college, but know that 400,000 girls are playing high school volleyball with only 15,000 collegiate varsity slots (and about 8,000 scholarships) available. If you add in the approximately 300 junior colleges (and about 3,000 JC scholarships at Di/DII level), you get another 3,600 openings. You may wish for your son to play in college, but know that more than 40,000 boys play in high school and there are only 92 grant in aids in the nation for college varsity programs at all levels combined. Do not forget there is high level club play at the college level, both for the school, and in USAV adult play, along with park and rec/YMCA leagues too. Read "Gifts for a Volleyball Player" CLICK HERE for more ideas on how to help your athlete excel.

To each coach - I challenge you to tryout and coach each player in a way that you will never be a child's last coach, and to follow with the principle of preserving the dignity of each of the athletes you are coaching. You can be demanding, but NEVER demeaning, and you should never take away an athlete's hope or trust of the game.

To each athlete - You can only control what you can control - your unrelenting hustle, your love of the game and playing, and your attitude and communication while working with any teammate and coach. Whether you make your first-choice team or not, you can take what you control - yourself, and continue to become the best volleyball player you can be.  An important quote that is most commonly is attributed to soccer player Mia Hamm is below.

"Do you remember why you play or has it been too long? Do you play because you've worked so hard to get where you are or is it because you love to be part of a team? Is it because you love the anxiety before the game? Is it because you don't want to let anyone down or because you don't want to let yourself down? Somewhere behind the athlete you've become, the hours of practice, the coaches who pushed you, the teammates who believe in you, and the fans who cheer for you is the little girl who took that first perfect shot. The little girl who fell in love with the game and never looked back, PLAY FOR HER."

In the end you must overcome your deepest fear. "They can cut the chain off the door, but they can't make us play" says one of the athletes in the movie "Coach Carter" as they sit at school desks on the court and study, since they were not making the school grades they had committed to making in order to play sports. This is a must-see movie by the way, and you can see my favorite clip by CLICKING HERE.  

Marianne Williamson wrote those words in the movie, in a passage about our deepest fear in her book A Return to Love. It is about living up to your fullest potential, and for those who get cut from any team, and for those who are not, these words should be taken to heart.

Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate.
Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure.

It is our light, not our darkness, that most frightens us.
We ask ourselves, Who am I to be brilliant,
gorgeous, handsome, talented and fabulous?

Actually, who are you not to be?
You are a child of God.

Your playing small does not serve the world.
There is nothing enlightened about shrinking
so that other people won't feel insecure around you.
We are all meant to shine, as children do.

We were born to make manifest the glory of God within us.
It is not just in some; it is in everyone.

And, as we let our own light shine, we consciously give
other people permission to do the same.
As we are liberated from our fear,
our presence automatically liberates others.

So to all of you, I ask that you play for the love the game and never let someone else's decision take you from having that amazing relationship with this lifetime sport. Best wishes to all who are brave enough to take part in a tryout and remember the wise words of Eleanor Roosevelt long ago, "No one can make you feel inferior without your consent."  Citius Altius, Fortius and enjoy the journey. Thanks for helping grow our sport and make sure to comment or let us know what you think -


The following comments were made on our previous web platform and have been transferred here to maintain the historical record.

On November 16, 2009 Michelle Goodall wrote

Great blog, John! And, I appreciate the timeliness. There are so many important reflections here--thanks for writing about them. Today on CNN I came upon another article on youth sports and I'm sharing it here as it touches on many of the same themes. An interesting's the link: Thanks again for all you do! You hold obvious passion. Keep up the great work! Michelle with USA Volleyball's Iowa Region

On July 23, 2010 Alyson Jackson wrote

I was mesmerized while reading this article. If that sounds ridiculous, oh well. These are amazing thoughts and yes, many important reflections here. I wanted to cry at times, why? Because I've seen coaches who rather than nurturing a kid's love for this game, for sport, have instead destroyed or nearly destroyed that love. I've witnessed many of the negatives John refers to. And of course, I've made my share of mistakes that I can reflect on through this article. But I have learned so much in such a short time through some really great volleyball minds and friends recently and now I've witnessed the other side. Through implementation, I've seen the results of many of the positive teaching tools that John and others have taught me and it's amazing the difference not only in the kids but even in myself. Why every coach in America isn't searching this stuff out is beyond me! I can't get enough!

On August 02, 2010 David Lancy wrote

Through the implementation and see the results of many positive teaching tools that examine John and other me and it's amazing the difference not only children but even myself. Why every coach in America are finding this stuff is beyond me! Can't get enough!

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