My name wasn’t on the list.
The list was taped to the wall of our high school gym, and in an instant, it brought my career playing organized basketball to an end. As I read the list, a feeling of devastation seeped into my heart and lungs, which were still burning after the last day of tryouts. A pit deepened in my stomach. My eyes strained to hold back tears. I had put in a lot of hard work, persisted through pain and passed up many pleasures in hopes of making the squad.
Getting cut made me bitter and angry, and for years afterward, the incident sent me to dark places.
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I still loved the game and I played intramurals. I also covered sports for magazines and newspapers, and I coached youth teams. I eventually officiated games and even ran leagues. Today I work for Positive Coaching Alliance, a national non-profit organization that aims to provide youth and high school athletes with a positive, character-building experience. Along the way, I’ve forgiven—but never forgotten—that cut.
That’s why I took a different approach to player cuts last week when I had to trim the team roster at San Mateo (Calif.) High School, where I am the junior varsity basketball coach. There was no list. On the day we had designated for decisions, my assistant coach ran drills in the gym and sent each player, one by one, in no particular order, to meet with me in the weight room for an assessment of his tryout.
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We wanted to carry 12 players on the roster, but 14 of the 19 trying out were good enough in terms of work ethic, potential and character traits to join us. We considered those two extra players based not on talent alone, but on the example they would set and how they would help other players develop by pushing any of the first 12 in practice. Most important, we knew what making the team meant to those last two, and what might become of them if we cut them.
On the day of the cuts, I wore a t-shirt that read, “Basketball Never Stops.” I hoped it would serve as a subtle reminder to players that the cut could be seen as the end of the beginning instead of the beginning of the end.
For athletes who were cut, the conversation went like this: “Tim, I’m having individual meetings today with each player trying out, to let him know where he stands. Unfortunately, we won’t be able to keep you on the team. If you want to know what goes into that decision, we can talk about that. But for now I just want to thank you for coming out and giving your best in tryouts.”
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I continued, saying, “I hope you keep playing one way or another. Basketball is a great sport—one that I’m still playing, even though I was cut from my high school team when I was your age. If you want to go back into the gym and finish today’s session, that’s fine. If you don’t want to, I’ll understand. Either way, please keep this conversation to yourself until after today’s session. We’re letting some people go today and keeping others, and I don’t want some guys celebrating and others feeling bad. Do you have any questions?”
I paid extra attention to my eye contact and made sure to offer firm handshakes.
Most players asked why they were being cut. The answers usually ran along these lines: “Knowing the competition we’ll face, and at your height, we need better ball-handling than what you show and even what we might be able to help you develop.” Another answer: “You’re a good athlete, but you haven’t had enough on-court experience. We can see that you don’t really know your way around a basketball court, where to go and when, and you weren’t picking that up quickly enough in these few days of tryouts.”
Players took these hard conversations very well, which I acknowledged so they could take pride in their tryouts: “I know this isn’t good news for you, but I appreciate your accepting it with grace and poise. That shows great strength. Thanks for looking me in the eye and again for coming out here and doing your best.”
Cutting players was not much easier than being cut. But at least the players got more than a list.