With the increased popularity of travel sports, young athletes are being more routinely asked to tryout for their sports teams. For adults, we know this pressure. Performing, taking a chance on going for something, being put under a microscope. Adults know what it’s like to apply for a job and to be interviewed. It’s very stressful! Young athletes may only have limited, if any, experience with these types of situations. It’s our role as mindful adult coaches to provide an appropriate cognitive structuring of what this process is, set expectations, and help young athletes navigate the learning of these difficult but important life events.

Tryouts should be renamed evaluations. Young athletes should be told that they are being evaluated with the intention of making their development the most fundamentally important element of the process. Explain that being on the developmentally appropriate team is what’s best for growth and development. That it’s not always helpful for an athlete to be far and away the best player on a team, or on the other side, to not be getting enough playing time to improve. Issues of safety, loss, fear, and belongingness are not nearly well developed enough for preadolescent athletes to manage on their own and should be thoroughly considered when explaining evaluations. Ideally, a sports organization has a team for every player, whether at the travel or in-house level, to support the claim that they are putting children’s development first.

The core of an evaluation should be clearly explained to help young athletes learn what good coaches are looking for. Attitude, athletism, competitiveness, and recovery are four mindful areas of focus. Breaking down an evaluation into these four categories helps young athletes understand that a quality evaluation is not based on outcomes, but is about their process. For young athletes, these categories can be broken down further into more relatable concepts. Attitude is explained by reinforcing the importance of hustling on and off the field at all times. Athletism is having fun. Young athletes having fun and being in the zone may be more likely to be at peak levels of athletism. Competitiveness is playing hard and trying to do your best. Recovery is how you handle a mistake, introducing the notion that coaches at evaluations are not judging mistakes but looking for how an athlete recovers from mistakes. This not only takes the pressure off of young athletes but encourages a focus on developing coping strategies and building resilience.

Evaluations are a part of most of our adult lives at some point. Let’s help our young athletes mindfully learn about this experience and how to approach it in the best possible way.