Psychology of Tryouts: Part II (What Athletes Can Do)
Athletes can take active steps to increase their chances of tryout success.
Posted Feb 07, 2018
In the first article in my four-part series exploring the psychology of tryouts, I discussed why tryouts can be so stressful for young athletes, and the mental areas that suffer the most when they put their athletic hopes and dreams on the line as they attempt to join a league, make a team, or qualify for a new level of play.
In this, my second article, I’m going to offer young athletes some practical tips to help them approach tryouts in a positive way, allowing them to perform to the best of their ability on the day of the tryout.
There are a lot of things at a tryout that you can’t control, including the weather and conditions (if outdoors), other athletes vying for the sought-after spots, and how you’re evaluated by the coaches running the tryout. But there is one big thing you can control that will likely determine how successful that tryout is for you: your preparation. Though you can’t control the outcome of the tryout, you can control everything you put into your performance at the tryout.
The day of the tryout, your goal is to be able to say, “I’m as prepared as I can be to perform my best and achieve my goals.” So, what does being prepared mean? Well, think of everything that goes into being ready for a tryout:
- Physical fitness (as in, in great shape);
- Technique and tactics (as in, practice what you’ll need to demonstrate at the tryout);
- Being well-rested (as in,, get plenty of sleep);
- Good nutrition (as in, eat healthy food/avoid junk food);
- Appropriate equipment (as in,, make sure your gear will work for you); and
- Be mentally ready (as in, motivated, confident, relaxed, focused).
Here are two simple and connected realities: If you aren’t totally prepared to perform your best, you have almost no chance of achieving your tryout goals. Conversely, if you are totally prepared, there are no guarantees of tryout success — there remains is a lot outside of your control — but you at least give yourself a chance.
So review the preparation list above and identify what you can do long before and immediately before the tryout to be able to say, “I’m prepared, so bring it on!”
If you care at all about your sport, you REALLY want to have a successful tryout. But that strong desire to, for example, make the traveling team, can turn into a “What if I don’t!” of doubt and worry. If you’re a Star Wars fan, I call it “going to the dark side,” where you go negative and become your worst enemy rather than your best ally.
This is a big problem, because if you are competing against, say, 29 other athletes, all of them want to beat you. If you go to the dark side, then YOU might also end up wanting to beat you! The odds then are 0 in 30; you have no chance for success. But if you’re your best ally, your chances are 1 in 30. That doesn’t sound like great odds, but everyone at the tryout has the same odds, and at least you give yourself a chance.
In the days leading up to your tryout, be aware of self-talk; is it positive or negative? If it’s positive, keep being positive, especially when things aren’t going the way you want. But if it’s negative, you want to get away from the dark side and use “The Force” for good. You can reshape your self-talk in a more positive direction. This change doesn’t mean making unrealistically positive statements, such as, “I’m definitely going to qualify at tryouts!” or, “I’m going to beat everyone out there!” Instead, it means saying positive things that are within your control. For example:
- “I’m going to be totally prepared for the tryout;”
- “I’m going to give my best effort out there;”
- “I’m going to have a ton of fun tomorrow!”
Focus on the process
Achieving your tryout goal, earning a coveted position on a team, is obviously the ultimate goal. But ironically, if you focus on the result you want, you actually decrease your chances of being successful in the tryout for two reasons. First, when is the decision about the tryout made? After you perform, of course. And if you’re focusing on what happens after you perform, you’re not focusing on what you need to do during the actual tryout. Second, as I noted in my first article, nerves are a common reaction before a tryout. So what are you nervous about? Most likely, you’re anxious about the outcome and, in particular, a disappointing outcome.
On the flip side, you are more likely to have a successful tryout if you don’t think about the result you want at all. Instead, if you focus on what you need to perform your best — technique, tactics, teamwork, etc. — you put yourself in a position to perform well. And, if you perform well, you have a good chance, though no guarantees, of accomplishing your tryout goal.
The reality is that as an athlete, you are a physical being, and performing up to your ability requires certain physical states. Unfortunately, the nerves you experience during a tryout can create physical states that can become your biggest obstacles to performing your best.
Specifically, when you get nervous, you experience muscle tension, short and choppy breathing, a racing heart, and excessive adrenaline. These physical symptoms reduce your strength, mobility, agility and endurance. In this physical state, your body is literally incapable of performing well, and you are pretty much doomed to failure in your tryout.
Your nerves don’t just hurt you physically; they also hurt you mentally. When you feel anxious, your motivation declines because you want to get away from the situation causing your nerves. Your confidence goes down because your body is sending a signal to your mind that you’re not going to be successful. Your focus turns away from performing your best and toward the powerful and unpleasant physical sensations you feel from your nerves. Finally, you experience a variety of uncomfortable and interfering emotions, including fear, frustration, anger and despair.
If nerves are the biggest obstacle to your tryout goals, staying relaxed is your greatest challenge. So, here are a few tools you can use to relax your body when you begin to experience a bad case of tryout nerves:
- Take deep breaths: Getting oxygen into your system will relax your muscles, calm your heart, reduce your adrenaline, and, overall, make you feel more comfortable, in control, and confident.
- Move your body: A great way to relieve your muscle tension is simply to move your body, which is like oiling rusty parts of a machine. So walk or run around, jump up and down, swing your arms and legs. Anything to break up the tension and relax your muscles.
- Listen to music: Music has a profound effect on us in many ways. It can either fire you up or calm you down (depending on what you’re listening to). Music can motivate you and make you feel more confident. And it can create positive emotions such as inspiration, excitement and pride. Create playlists that make you feel good, and listen to them before and during your tryouts.
- Smile: This is one of the weirdest relaxation tools I’ve ever discovered. Research has shown two things about why smiling is so beneficial. First, as we grow up, we are conditioned that when we smile, we’re happy and life is good. Second, brain research has found that when we smile, endorphins (our brain’s natural relaxants) are released that have a powerful relaxing effect. So, when you get nervous, just smile (you don’t have to be happy; it just involves raising the corners of your mouth) and within a few minutes, you’ll find that you’re more relaxed and you feel a whole lot better.
Tryouts can be so important and stressful to you that you may forget what the real point of sports is — namely to have fun, right?? Sure, you want to qualify for that higher league or be selected for that elite traveling team, but if it’s not fun, what’s the point?
Unfortunately, when you get too serious about the tryout and put too much pressure on yourself, not only do you suck the fun out of your efforts, but you also don’t perform up to your ability. Focusing on having fun creates a physical and mental state that allows you to perform your best. Mentally, you’re happy, motivated, confident and focused. Physically, you’re relaxed, energized, and excited to be out there.
You can have fun at tryouts in two ways. First, choose to see your tryout not as life or death, but rather as a fun experience in which you challenge yourself to do the best you can, regardless of the ultimate outcome. Second, make the tryout day fun by doing things that are fun for you. For example, listen to music, goof around with your friends, cheer on your friends, and share the experience with your family.
And don’t forget to SMILE! Remember, you’re doing this — or SHOULD be doing this — because you enjoy the heck out of it. Because it’s FUN. And only you have the power to make sure it’s exactly that. Good luck!
Note: This is the second in a series of four articles commissioned by YSPN360.com (please visit for more great youth sports information) that explores the psychology of tryouts. Subsequent articles in the series will look at what their coaches and the coaches running the tryouts can do to make the experience as positive as possible; and what parents can do to best support their young athletes in their tryouts.