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Planning Ahead

Working with student-athletes has its highs and its lows, its ups and downs. For many coaches, one of the toughest days is announcing who is cut from the team following tryouts.

Aaron Kroll, Head Baseball Coach at Roncalli High School in Indianapolis, has found a way to ease the angst of team selections: off-season evaluations. For the past two years, he has initiated sit-downs with potential players before winter workouts, when he talks to them about their chances of making the squad. Come spring tryouts, the student-athletes know where they stand and there are no big surprises.

“We tell them whether we see them fitting into the program and what their role may be, based on how they’ve performed in the fall and previous seasons,” says Kroll, who took over the Roncalli program in 2015 and has led the Rebels to three sectional titles and its first state championship in 2016. “If a guy may not make the team, he can decide whether to continue to attend off-season workouts or pursue other things.

“I’m really big on communication—everybody should always know what’s going on,” he continues. “I’m happy to report that the evaluations have helped our program in many ways.”

The idea emerged after Kroll had a conversation with Roncalli Athletic Director David Lauck in the spring of 2018. “Some parents had expressed displeasure over their kid being cut in March after attending off-season workouts,” says Kroll. “We discussed possible ways to decrease the chances of that continuing to happen.”

The result is a process in which Kroll meets with student-athletes who are interested in being on the team for the upcoming season. This includes those involved in the program the previous year and any additional students who have indicated interest in attending offseason workouts and trying out for the team in the spring. He also meets with potential captains to talk about their roles as leaders.

Parents are given a heads-up about the evaluations during the team’s annual parent-only meeting, which Kroll traditionally holds the Monday before Thanksgiving. “Our evaluation date, in late November or early December, is on a calendar that all parents receive,” he explains.

In preparing what he will communicate to each player, Kroll confers with his assistant coaches and thinks about the athlete’s progress over the past year. He also asks team leaders for their input.

The individual player meetings are fairly short (typically five minutes or less) and take place in a classroom at the school. There are no charts or paperwork involved—just honest conversation. “The evaluations are based on their previous performance, who we have returning, and what we saw in fall workouts,” says Kroll.

To help with the dialogue, he asks Assistant Coach Mark Pieper to sit in. “He’s been coaching for a long time, and he has a special gift for talking with teenagers,” says Kroll. “Having someone that’s older and wiser and from a different era to help me with this stuff has been tremendous.”

Most important, Kroll and Pieper make it very clear what the athlete’s chances are for landing on the spring roster. “We talk about the positive things they have provided for our program, but we are also very honest. I believe that is the right thing to do and the best thing for kids,” says Kroll. “Sure, we can lead the kid on and make him think that he’s fine, have him come out and participate in all of our workouts. But then if he gets cut in March—when he could have opted to pursue something else instead—that will be more upsetting.”

At the same time, Kroll makes clear that he is not making roster decisions at this point, just telling students where they stand. “A lot of things can change in a few months before tryouts, so we try to promote that as best we can,” he explains. “We also talk to players about how they can improve as we move forward. We tell them where they’re lacking and what areas to work on.”

Once the spring season arrives, tryouts are run as they always have been. But the surprises are no longer there and there are fewer decisions to make. “We talk one more time about a player’s role at the start of the season, just to make sure that they’re okay with what they’re signing up for,” Kroll says.

And he meets individually with any player being cut. “We tell them why, give them their measurables, and explain how they stack up against those making the team,” Kroll explains. “We encourage them to keep playing if they love the game, to find somewhere to play in the summer, and to come out and try again. We also offer some of those kids a team manager spot, and several take us up on that. Those kids have been great for our program as well.”

Kroll envisions continuing player evaluations for many seasons to come. “We think it’s been really valuable for our program, and I don’t see why it couldn’t work in every sport,” he says.

The key, Kroll believes, is being honest, while also being positive. “No matter how you do it, you may hurt some kids’ feelings and probably make a few parents upset,” he says. “That’s just in the nature of what we do. So, you can either be honest ahead of time, or you can wait and communicate as little as possible until tryouts are over. I think the latter creates more problems.

“We never want a kid to come back to us and say, ‘Well, why didn’t you tell me in the fall?’” Kroll adds. “A player may not like what they hear, but down the road they’ll appreciate being told the truth and given that opportunity to make a decision about their involvement on their own.”

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