Thursday, November 04, 2004

Hope Springs Eternal

Sixth grade tryouts are always one of my favorite days of the year. Long ago I decided to split tryouts by grade level before the first cut for two reasons. First, it makes the numbers a lot easier to deal with. I usually have between 80 and 100 kids who come out, which is far too much for one small gym to comfortably accomodate. Second, the sixth graders are easily intimidated by the competition, so it's best if the eighth graders aren't in the gym for their first tryouts.

The announcement that I put in the school bulletin advertised that tryouts would start at 3:00 in the gym. Predictably, though, four or five boys showed up at my classroom at 2:51, one minute after the bell rang. When I asked them, they knew exactly where they were supposed to be, and exactly what time tryouts would begin, but they just wanted to make sure, which is why I love sixth graders...

Sixth graders who want to be on the basketball team are nothing if not eager to please. When I got to the gym, the boys were still in the lockerroom getting changed, but within minutes they were sprinting -- sprinting -- in the doors and up into the bleachers. As they stashed their backpacks and checked their hightops, I was struck, as I always am, with the pure hopefulness emanating from them. (It's quite different with the painfully overconfident eigth graders; more on them next week.)

I asked for their attention, and they gave it to me quickly. I asked them to come and stand along the sideline, and they complied instantly. Seventeen boys stood before me (one named Shaquille), their eyes as alert as they had been all day long, each of them excited to play and anxious to impress, and I hated knowing that I would have to cut almost everyone one of them. I encourage sixth graders to try out for the team, but I always make sure they realize very few of them will actually make it. The gap between a sixth grader and an eighth grader is enormous, and very few sixth graders can handle the level of competition in our league. I usually try to keep two sixth graders, mainly because they need company. A single sixth grader on the team would be swallowed up by the seventh and eighth graders, and more than three would simply take up too much roster space.

We started tryouts with a few admonitions. Though most of the seventeen had probably played on an organized team at some point, I'm certain that this was their first attempt at making a team that they couldn't just sign up for, so I gave them some tips:

1. Listen. Don't give the coach an excuse to send you home.
2. Always work hard. Now is not the time to be lazy.
3. Don't worry about missed shots. I'll be watching for other things.
4. Do not shoot any three-pointers. If you do, I'll ask you to leave.
5. Have fun.

And with that, we were off. We started with lay-up lines. With sixth graders, this usually eliminates at least half of the group, and so it was today. Some of the boys couldn't really dribble without looking at the ball, and others were only throwing the ball up to the backboard and hoping that it would go in. Next, we moved on to jumpshots, with similar results.

I followed that up with a modified 3 on 2 drill. I chose the two best players and had them play defense on one end while groups of three ran at them from the other end. The drill is designed to give the boys an opportunity to show some game skills in a controlled environment. I can quickly get a sense of their feel for the game, as well as more basic skills like dribbling, passing, and shooting. Plus, they get to run, which they always like.

Finally, it was scrimmage time. I randomly split the first ten boys on my list into two teams and had them run up and down a bit. It takes about two or three trips back and forth before you find out what you need to know. It's like when you were a kid at the beach and you filled your plastic sieve with sand. After a shake or two, all the sand runs out through the holes, leaving a few shells rattling back and forth. In this case, there were two boys who stood out above the rest, Eric and Erick. They scrimmaged on the same team, and they played well together, one constantly finding the other in the post for easy baskets. (It's something, by the way, to see a five-foot kid posting up.)

At one point during the first scrimmage, a boy jacked up a three-pointer, violating one of my rules. I immediately blew the whistle and pulled him out. He was clueless, but when he got to the bleachers, all the other boys knew exactly what had happened. A few minutes later, he had his backpack on and asked me if he should leave. He looked like he was about to cry, so I let him stay. He won't make the team, but there was no sense in sending him home.

An interesting sidenote about today's tryout. One of my assistant coaches works on campus as the staff assistant, which basically means that he helps out with everything that needs to be done -- delivering supplies, supervising before and after school, removing unruly students from class, etc. Anyway, he was a little late to practice today because there was a shooting a few blocks from campus just as school got out. He was dispatched with the rest of the administrative staff to steer our exiting students around the crime scene. Meanwhile, my seventeen sixth graders were shooting layups and dreaming of making the basketball team.