By Mike Woitalla
The kids wear bibs with numbers and the coaches walk around with clipboards jotting notes.
They play 1v1s, 2v2s, flying-changes, 4v4s …
One young boy sprints down the sidelines, brilliantly avoiding a tackle by flicking the ball over the defender’s leg. As he continues dribbling, he looks back at us with the clipboards -- no doubt checking if we saw that.
A coach is dividing up a hundred 8-year-old boys and directs eight of them to go to Coach X, points, and says, “The young man by the corner flag.” … “He’s not very young!” shouts one boy. Followed up by another’s, “He’s not!”
We’re all chuckling and the tryouts don’t seem so stressful anymore.
When I first dealt with tryouts as a coach, I hated them. Way back in my childhood, tryouts presented themselves when you hit high-school age. Now we subject elementary school kids, and I felt uncomfortable with that.
But mainly I dreaded tryouts because my role included calling the kids who didn’t get picked -- and worst of all, cutting players from my previous season’s team.
Now as a “support coach” -- setting up cones, offering a few opinions, not doing the cutting -- it’s actually an enjoyable experience, watching kids of different ages and backgrounds playing soccer at various levels. The tryouts are set up so well that the players get ample opportunity to display their talent -- and the kid who wonders whether a coach “saw that” can be confident one did, because we’ve got so many coaches on the field.
Now I have fewer reservations about the tryout experience for youngsters. Over the years I’ve seen so many of the same players return -- whether or not their previous tryout turned out how they had hoped. And those who don’t make an elite team will still have a team to play on.
One of the most satisfying parts of the tryout process is watching the top groups at the end of the last day, and little children are playing great, entertaining soccer. But the impressions that last the longest are from the kids who struggle with soccer skills or athleticism -- yet they try so hard.
There’s one boy. When defending, he always arrives late. His passes and shots almost never meet the target. How could they when his plant foot isn’t planted or the ball springs off his toe? He’s a big kid, but turns timid whenever an opponent nears. Yet his enthusiasm and effort never wane.
A fellow coach notices I’ve been watching him and says: “He comes every year and never makes it.”
And I’m thinking that kid may never become a soccer star, but he’ll succeed grandly in some other field.
(Mike Woitalla, the executive editor of Soccer America, is co-author, with Tim Mulqueen, of The Complete Soccer Goalkeeper and co-author with Claudio Reyna of More Than Goals: The Journey from Backyard Games to World Cup Competition. Woitalla's youth soccer articles are archived at YouthSoccerFun.com. Woitalla coaches youth soccer in Northern California at East Bay United/Bay Oaks.)