By: Mark Rerick, CMAA - Univ. of North Dakota
Cut [kuht] - (verb) - to separate from the main body, or to abridge or shorten.
It's important to point this fact out first: nobody likes the process of cuts. Athletes don't like hearing they aren't good enough; parents don't like knowing that their children might not be good enough; and coaches hate having to tell students who are motivated and excited about playing they aren't good enough. For sports that cut, I can say without hesitation that cut day is one of the toughest of the season for everybody. So, why do we have cuts?
As much as we'd like to base our entire program in just meeting three department goals - having fun, learning how to compete, and learning the sport - the reality of an athletic department is that all stakeholders still expect teams to be able to compete with the intent to win games. Parents didn't call me because they thought our teams weren't having enough fun. That means we need to get our athletes as good as we can get them, put our best athletes on a team together, and coach them the best we can. To do this, we try to clearly define our competitive levels.
For the varsity team, coaches select the athletes they believe will give the team the best opportunity to compete on any given night. It's important to note that this doesn't necessarily mean the team consists of the most talented individuals. Sometimes, an athlete blessed with talent has difficulty fitting a specific role on the team and needs more time to grow within a team concept. I often received calls/emails from parents who are upset because they claimed their kid is a better player than someone else and should be on varsity. I don't engage with parents in this conversation, but if I did, I would point out that several different characteristics lead to a team being successful.
The junior varsity (JV) level is an opportunity to prepare athletes for varsity next year. It can be difficult to predict this roster considering the various rates of growth and maturity among high school students. But, put as simply as possible, this level consists of the next most competitive group of athletes. It's important to note that since the JV level is meant to prepare future varsity athletes, usually seniors will not be on the roster, except for unique circumstances. As an AD, this was the level that caused me the highest level of stress. In essence, we're asking our head coaches to guess who might be the best suited for varsity in the next season. It's a task that's nearly impossible, and we will never get it 100% right.
Most of our 9th graders played at the freshmen level in the sports that have enough numbers for a freshmen team. Freshmen teams are an excellent way for 9th graders to learn how to practice and compete in a high school setting, e.g., a longer season, higher level skill learning, more travel. With those factors, we often see our biggest drop in participation between the students' 9th and 10th grade years as they start to learn the level of dedication it takes to be successful at high school athletics. We try to give athletes on our freshmen teams close to equal playing time to encourage skill development.
The C teams are a go-between for sophomores and juniors who aren't quite ready to compete on the JV yet. From time to time, there may be a freshman on a C team in order to fill a roster or compete against older athletes. When we have enough participants, a C team allows an opportunity to keep more students active in sports. When there is another team for sophomores and juniors to compete, we're able to keep more freshmen in our programs, as well. The C team is generally referred to as the Sophomore Team; rightfully so, as this team typically consists of mostly sophomores.
The harsh truth of these four levels is that we can only house so many students in each level while still providing meaningful instruction and competition. Much like how a math classroom with over 30 students is tough, we can't expect a basketball coach to effectively teach 20+ students on his/her own. I have yet to meet a coach who enjoys cutting kids from their programs, but coaches understand that it's necessary to remain competitive. At the lower levels, particularly Freshmen and C team, keeping too many participants on the roster spreads practice reps and game minutes too thinly among our athletes, hindering their competitive growth. At the upper levels, we can only roster a finite number of varsity athletes, and we need the JV team to build our future varsity athletes.
As much as we'd like to find a place for all students who wish to compete, it's simply not possible. Even if we chose to run multiple freshmen and C teams solely as participation opportunities for students, there would be two major problems: funding and finding enough teams to compete against. Using our highest cut sport, hockey, as an example: it would have cost us roughly $30,000 to add a second level of JV hockey to both of our high schools. Beyond that, we would be the only schools in our conference with a second JV team, so we'd be scouring the countryside for teams we could play. The added expense along with the difficulties in scheduling, travel, and finding ice time makes it difficult to justify additional levels.
While it's nice to know the reasons behind the necessity of cuts, knowing the “why” doesn't make the “how” any easier. To that, I offer some brief tips to the main groups involved in cuts.
Coaches - be honest and professional in dealing with the students. You know they don't want to hear they're cut, but it's better to be open and honest about why they are being cut. If there's something an underclassman needs to improve upon, tell him/her. If it's a senior who just isn't talented enough to help the team, tell him/her. It will be a tough conversation, but being blunt and honest is the best way to move forward.
Parents - cuts are probably tougher on you than on your kids or the coaches. In the past couple years, I've seen various versions of the same sign floating around the internet that reads, “Your child's success or lack of success in sports does not indicate what kind of parent you are. But, having an athlete that is coachable, respectful, a great teammate, mentally tough, resilient and who tries their best is a direct reflection of your parenting.”
I understand that cuts are tough for parents. When your son or daughter gets cut, it's easy to take it as a condemnation of how you've raised your child. While having an incredible work ethic can help close the gap to more talented athletes, it can't completely replace genetic gifts. It's ok if your son or daughter isn't one of the best players in the school. Help them find other activities they're good at.
I like to use math to prepare parents for the inevitability of cuts. For example, when my oldest son played hockey at the Mite level, their brief travel season included four teams of 15 players each – 60 total nine-year-olds. My school had two varsity teams that can roster 20 athletes each, meaning we only have room for 40 varsity hockey players. This means that in 9 years, even if our varsity teams were made entirely out of seniors (which would be these Mite kids in 9 years), there would still be 20 kids from the current Mite teams who won't make our high school teams. Add to that the reality that there will probably be 60 travel mites next year and 60 travel mites the year after that, and we're looking at a minimum of 140 kids in that three-year span who mathematically can't make the varsity teams.
That's the main reason why I don't encourage athletes to specialize in a sport. I try to remind parents that the time and money commitment is for their kids to participate with the chance to improve; it's not a guarantee of anything more than that. Even if 180 hockey kids in town all spend $6,000+ per year in the next five years on camps and club teams, we can still only roster 40 varsity players.
Athletes - how will you respond to being cut from a team? I think it's fair to assume that you will be sad and/or mad to some extent depending on your level of commitment to the team. Getting cut from the team, much like being assigned to a smaller role on the team, isn't an indictment on you as a person. How you respond to getting cut, however, will speak volumes about who you are as a person. If you're an underclassman, will you actively seek ways to get better at the skills you're lacking? If you recognize that you lack the natural ability to advance in this sport, will you actively seek something else to do to represent your school? If you're an upperclassman, can you still actively support the team in some other manner? Can you lend your knowledge to the younger teammates to improve their abilities or their experiences? Can you use this setback as an opportunity to become a better, stronger person for the future? All of those characteristics are transferable skills into the outside world.
As athletic directors, dealing with programs that must make cuts is unavoidable. Our role is to support our coaches throughout the process and find the benefits of honest assessment and feedback for our athletes.