An athletes worst nightmare – you’ve been cut

It was demoralizing.

I stood outside the gym at our Junior High School and scanned the list for at least the twentieth time with the same results. In my mind I must have thought that if I kept looking at that list my name would somehow pop up and I would realize my dream of playing for the Junior High basketball team. As it stood, I did not make the cut and I was devastated…and angry.

I was so angry I walked into the coaches’ office moments later and asked him why I wasn’t chosen over some of the other kids whom I felt lacked my passion for the game.

“Listen Matua,’ Coach Richardson, a wiry old man in the winter of his teaching and coaching career said in his raspy voice while peering up at me from his desk through bushy eyebrows that concealed his stern brown eyes. ‘You’re a good player. You have a good mid-range jumper, you pass well and you even rebound the ball well. But, you’re a little slow, you don’t move well without the ball and you think too much. You need to be more instinctive. Work on your speed this year and come back next season.”

Dejected I walked away in denial. I worked on my game all year convinced that I was going to show that coach that he had made a mistake. I attended every game of the season, wondering how I could be a better asset to the team in the coming year.

Unfortunately, my parents came up with this brilliant idea to move our family to Samoa so I never had the chance to show Coach Richardson how much my game had improved. I never had an opportunity to put my skills to the test against the same players who had made the team that year. There is no Michael Jordan success story here. Sadly, there was not a high school basketball league in Samoa but I did get the chance to play in competitive adult leagues where I think I held my own with guys who were very good players.

I bring this up because there comes a time when as players we are faced with disappointment. It is hard for young players to understand and reconcile the emotions that are felt when you realize that your skills in whatever game you play are not quite on par with other athletes. Let’s face it, if we were all as good as Kobe Bryant in basketball, as talented with a football as Michael Vick or could dominate at the plate and with a glove like Albert Pujols, all sports would be dull and a farce.

Or what would you do in the case of some teams where there is such an abundance of talent that no one is even interested in watching games because they are so lopsided to the point where it is embarrassing and downright boring?

That is the pickle some coaches find themselves in, particularly in youth sports. Many coaches who volunteer their time and spend countless hours as a volunteer find themselves in a dilemma – when they have to cross over from being a team of friends, to a team that regularly competes with the best talent in their league.

In retrospect, I clearly understand Coach Richardson’s difficult position. Do I pick a kid because he’s a good kid, he does some things well and he’s always been with the team? By doing so, do I ignore the kid who has superior skills but he’s been playing somewhere else for so long and is therefore not a part of the long-standing tradition? Do I select players based on talent and abilities and what they refer to in the coaching profession as ‘upside’? Or should I be content to field a fairly good team that may not win or compete in every game, but we sure have a lot of fun when we are together.

As the coach of a team in a competitive league you wear multiple hats but you have one primary objective – win games and put your players in a position to excel and exceed expectations. Parents of athletes expect that when they are paying top dollar to play on a winning team.

In youth sports sometimes the players are less of a bother than their parents. How do you explain to a parent that you love their son or daughter, but they are a just a step slower on average than the rest of the team, they don’t jump as high, they don’t react as quickly to a situation or they just haven’t progressed athletically with the rest of their peers?

I’ve spent a lot of time as a volunteer coach in various sports. From soccer to basketball, football to rugby; it is taxing in many ways. It consumes a lot of your resources, it is an endless source of headaches but it is more often than not a very gratifying experience. Like all other things in life, coaches, just like teachers, managers, social workers, doctors and many other professions, are forced to have difficult conversations with their athletes and their parent(s). As a coach you have to do what is right for the team which is not always what is right for an individual player.

In my example I realized very early in life that my athletic skills would never be on par with someone like Jonah Lomu in rugby or Chris Paul in basketball. It is a tough life lesson but if dealt with properly by the coach, player and parent(s), it can be a lesson that is applied to all other aspects of life. It can be a positive life-altering situation, or it can be a source of contention and resentment for all involved.

I think I came out okay in my situation. I hope we can all find the optimism and constructive, encouraging outcomes whether we make the team or not.

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