The More the Merrier

January 29, 2015
With a little extra planning and some thinking outside the box, no-cut teams can be implemented in any sport.


By Laura Ulrich

Laura Ulrich is a contributing writer for Athletic Management. She can be reached at: [email protected]

Five years ago, when Juan Torres showed up on the first day of practice for the boys' tennis team at Prince Technical High School in Hartford, Conn., Head Coach Mark Snyder could not have guessed he was looking at a future standout. A freshman with special needs, Torres had never picked up a racket before. But Snyder has a firm no-cut policy on his team, so he welcomed Torres onto the squad.

"He certainly didn't look like an athlete," says Snyder, who also serves as Athletic Director at Prince Technical. "I expected him to practice, learn some skills, and help out as a manager."

The first year, that's basically how it went. "He couldn't even really finish a match in practice," says Snyder. "He'd play a couple of games, say he was tired, and walk off the court."

But a spark had been ignited. During the off-season, Torres teamed up with another freshman on the team, Daniel Lopez, the team's number-10 player, and the two spent the summer on the court, practicing as much as seven hours a day. "Daniel told me, 'Coach, wait until you see Juan--he's amazing,'" Snyder says. "I said, 'Great!' But I know kids have good imaginations, so I wasn't expecting a whole lot."

When school reopened, however, Snyder got a surprise. Juan's skills had improved so dramatically that he started his sophomore season as the team's number-two player, and two years later, ended his career in the league championship semifinal, where he lost in a tie-breaker. He also served as a team captain.

"If we had held tryouts, Juan would have been cut as a freshman," Snyder says. "I doubt we would ever have seen him again. Instead, he had a wonderful experience, became a huge contributor, and learned a sport he'll love for the rest of his life."

In his role as Athletic Director at Prince Tech, Snyder oversees an entire program of no-cut teams. However, diamond-in-the-rough tales are not the biggest reason he's passionate about avoiding cuts. Instead, it takes a story of a very different type to explain his philosophy.

"This winter, we had a banquet in honor of an eighth grader who was shot and killed while walking to school four years ago," Snyder says. "Hartford makes the news every day for stories like this. I sat at that banquet and thought about how we need to keep every student we can involved in a positive activity. With all of the growing challenges facing kids today, I see a definite need to create spaces for as many kids as possible."

FACILITIES & FUNDING
When considering no-cut teams, two challenges probably come to mind immediately: How do you fit extra large teams into already-tight facility use schedules? And how do you cover the extra expenses? To be sure, facilities and funding are challenges, but creative solutions exist.

"Facility use is a huge issue for us, especially during the basketball season," says Brad Womack, Athletic Director at Silver Lake (Kan.) High School, where all athletic teams are no-cut. "We've instituted morning practice times to take the pressure off. Being in the gym at 6 a.m. isn't the easiest thing for students, but it does mean you go home right after school, and some of them really like that."

Early morning and late evening practice times are also common at Fargo (N.D.) Catholic Schools, where there is a no-cut policy for freshman teams and cuts are avoided at the j.v. and varsity levels whenever possible. To keep things fair, Activities Director Randy Nelson rotates practice times among teams, changing the schedule weekly. "This week, the varsity girls' basketball team may practice right after school, and next week, the j.v. boys may get that slot," he says.

Nelson schedules practices one week at a time, using a spreadsheet to keep track of how often each team gets the early, late, and optimal times. Once the schedule is set for the upcoming week, it's posted on the school's athletics Web site and an e-mail goes out to each parent. "I've had to ask people to think outside the box and be flexible, but it works," he says.

Using community or elementary school facilities can also work. Before Prince Tech added four tennis courts this year, Snyder coached his team with no home courts at all, transporting players to a community facility each day. Now, with courts available at school, he still sometimes transports half of his team to the community courts. "This works because my assistant coach and I have our bus driving licenses," Snyder says. "We avoid the cost of paying a driver."

At Green Hope High School in Cary, N.C., Boys' and Girls' Head Cross Country Coach Michael Miragliuolo doesn't have to worry about facility space for his no-cut team, which boasted 210 runners last fall, but he does plan carefully to keep other expenses in check. "Uniforms could pose a massive cost for our program," he says. "So we ask each runner to purchase a $40 uniform at the beginning of their freshman year and use it all four years. Before we started this system, we used a lot of hand-me-downs, and some years we had uniforms in several different colors."

"For tennis, I collect uniforms and keep them over a long period of time, taking really good care of them," Snyder says. "I also ask local tennis clubs for donations of one-time-used balls. I spend less than $1,000 a year on tennis.

"For our no-cut football team, the budget can be more of an issue," he continues. "At the start of the season this year, we had 70 players and only 60 uniforms. We did a fundraiser and were able to get the other 10 uniforms. Fundraising is something we do a lot of, and our community is very responsive. We talk about how passionate we are to keep every kid involved, and our community has become passionate about it as well."

Perhaps the most affordable way to offer opportunities is to have a limited number of no-cut sports, focusing on those where the costs and logistics make it the easiest. "Our athletic director makes sure there is at least one no-cut sport every season--cross country, football, wrestling, and track," says Miragliuolo. "If someone wants to be part of athletics, there's a place for them."

Tennis is a good option to consider, thanks to some initiatives of the United States Tennis Association (USTA) that help high schools manage no-cut teams. "They have a lot of excellent resources, and a coach from the USTA even attended one of our practices to give us ideas," Snyder says.

DIFFERENT ROLES

Coaches may balk at the idea of no cuts because it would seem to make a team less competitive. But this does not have to be the case. The key is to have different expectations for different student-athletes--and to make those roles very clear.

On Miragliuolo's cross country team, each athlete is assigned to one of three tiers, and each tier completes different workouts and has distinct goals. At the bottom end, runners are focused simply on having fun and improving their fitness. Those in the most challenging group are striving to win titles--and succeeding: The girls' team won the state championships this year, and the boys have won eight conference crowns in a row.

"Having a no-cut team requires a shift in perspective, because you have to accept that athletes are going to be there for different reasons," Miragliuolo says. "Many of the kids who come out for my team simply want to be part of something. I have a separate set of expectations for them, or it would never work."

When he began his team eight years ago, Miragliuolo allowed runners to select their own levels. Over time, however, he's found it works better to assign athletes to the tier that best fits their ability. "After preseason practices are over, I divide them up," he says. "We use a time trial, so a lot of the decision is based on objective data."

Snyder, too, finds it important to offer more than one set of expectations. "Only my top 10 play in matches, so with 40 players, that leaves me with 30 who aren't going to compete," he says. "I talk informally with each player as the season goes on about their goals and I let them know that my goal is that they enjoy practice and want to stay on the team."

CJ Hamilton, Head Football Coach at Silver Lake, who has amassed six state titles and 300 wins with a no-cut policy, says it's also important to let parents know how the different roles work. "I talk about playing time during our parents' meeting at the beginning of the year," he says. "I make sure they understand that from a safety standpoint, it may not be practical for their child to play a lot. Talking about it early avoids problems down the road--it's important for any team, but even more so for a no-cut program."

At the same time, Hamilton tries to get as many kids playing time as possible by having players specialize. "We make a lot of use of special teams," he says. "Also, more than other schools our size, we assign players as offensive or defensive. We believe getting more repetitions at a position helps us use our less skilled players effectively--they are more prepared than the person playing opposite them who may be a better athlete but hasn't spent as much time practicing this specific skill."

MANAGING PRACTICES

Although athletes may have different roles, practices should be meaningful for everyone. For some teams, that means a little extra planning, or thinking differently about how to structure a practice.

"My coaching staff and I spend at least four hours every Sunday planning the week's practices," Hamilton says. "At practice, we divide up into groups of 10 or 12 players with one or two coaches assigned to each group, and we have several components of the game going on at once, dividing the field into three sections. Because we've planned it all out, every coach knows exactly what is going to happen when and practice runs smoothly."

Snyder also designs his tennis practices with a multitude of activities going on. "We break players into skill lines so we can work on several things at once," he says. "We divide 40 players onto four courts. With 10 per court, there are some great drills you can do.

"And to ensure I have enough time with my more competitive players, I put the 20 who are competing for our 10 starting spots on two courts, with two courts for the other players," he continues. "This is where it helps that I have openly discussed goals and roles with players."

With his tier system, Miragliuolo plans three different workouts for his runners. "My top group may be at the practice fields doing five intervals of 1,000 meters, while my middle group is on the track doing intervals of 400s, 800s, and one 1,000," he says. "And my lowest group may be on the soccer field doing shorter sprints or playing a game."

Another approach is to divide practice time, reducing the number of players present, which has worked well at Silver Lake. "Some of our coaches have half their players come in for an hour and a half, and then those players leave and the next group comes in and everything starts over," Womack says.

"We are also considering separating out fundamentals practice and team skills building," he continues. "Everyone would come in for the first hour of practice to work on fundamentals. Then on some days, the top players would be dismissed while coaches worked on team concepts with the lower-level players. On the other days, the lower end would be dismissed and coaches could work exclusively with their top players."

Asking older athletes on the team to serve as mentors can also help manage large numbers. "The right players can almost become an extension of your coaching staff," Snyder says. "I consider my captains close to assistant coaches. They lead drills, and I've found that other players enjoy learning from an experienced teammate, sometimes more than from a coach.

"I do take some time preparing them for their role," he continues. "At the beginning of the season, only the coaches run drills. By the time my captains run them, they've seen the process many times. And we always blow a whistle and change drills together, so everyone stays on the same page."

Miragliuolo uses a similar but even more structured strategy. He divides his team into companies of 20 runners, 10 boys and 10 girls, which stay the same throughout the season. Each company has two captains, one boy and one girl, and the captains take attendance for their company, lead stretches, and oversee the day's workout.

At the same time, it's important to not let students ever have supervisory roles or to compromise safety. "In football, we might have a 120-pound player lining up against a 210-pound player," Hamilton says. "Because of that, I believe we need one coach, often two, controlling the action at all times.

"Safety of practices is a big concern with so many kids, and it's something we focus on a great deal," he continues. "We're very cognizant of who is involved in each play or drill, and we control the action with our whistles. We run a lot of drills at 70-percent speed to keep things safe, and we'll stop the action dead if we see things getting dangerous."

Even in a low-risk sport like tennis, Snyder says it's critical to focus on safety with a big group. "There are times when we have 50 kids in a gym with tennis rackets in their hands," he says. "Many of them haven't developed much spatial awareness, and it would be pretty easy for someone to get hurt.

"Before we put a racket in a player's hand, we teach them how to handle it," Snyder continues. "We make sure our drills isolate one player at a time, and we do a lot of fundamental drills without rackets."

With practices managed well and everyone knowing their role, no-cut teams can be possible at any school. And for Snyder, it has helped his athletic department have new energy. "As a department, we've become passionate about getting more kids involved," he says. "Now it's woven into our mission and we're all pulling in that direction.

"It's been very rewarding to see our priorities shift from an emphasis on winning to an emphasis on also including as many kids as possible," he continues. "After all, high school sports is about teaching life lessons and being part of something. Shouldn't we extend that experience to as many kids as we can?"

Resource:

To access information from the United States Tennis Association on implementing no-cut high school tennis teams, visit: www.usta.com/Coaches/HighSchool.aspx.

Sidebar: In Writing

At Silver Lake (Kan.) High School, every sport is open to all comers--the department has never made cuts. However, this fall it was facing a funding crunch, and for the first time, the idea of instituting cuts was considered.

"In the past, each time the number of student-athletes on a roster hit a critical mass, we've been able to divide the team and put together another schedule of contests," says Athletic Director Brad Womack. "But we can't hire more coaches this year. And we didn't want to cut players. So we asked ourselves what we could do instead."

The answer was the adoption of a "developmental letter." Under this system, after the first five days of practice, coaches have the option of handing out developmental letters to players who they feel are unlikely to see playing time during the season. The letter informs the player that he or she is welcome to stay on the team and practice, but that contest time will be limited.

"If practicing without competing isn't sufficient for them to feel like they're getting enough out of the season, they can simply leave the team," Womack says. "They're told to take the letter home, think about it, and talk it over with their parents. If they decide to stay on the squad, they and their parents are asked to sign the letter."

Womack admits the system walks a fine line, as it risks suggesting that players should choose whether to participate based solely on projected playing time. "We aren't trying to send that message, and we realize that playing time is not guaranteed to any player," he says. "But if a coach truly knows at the outset of the season that a given player won't play much, we feel it's better that the student and his or her parents know five practices into the season rather than five weeks."

Silver Lake borrowed the idea from neighboring district Salina South (Kan.) High School, where Head Volleyball Coach Mary Pat Weese has used it for six years. Weese still makes some cuts in her program, but by giving developmental letters to several players each year, she is able to reduce the number who are cut.

And it definitely eliminates parent problems, according to Weese. "We had a large number of players on our j.v. team this year, which could have been a nightmare when it comes to playing time," she says. "But four of them had developmental letters, so they and their parents knew what to expect, and I knew I wasn't going to have a parent in my office saying, 'Why doesn't my daughter play?'

"This has been a great alternative to sending away players whose skills and experience might not be there," she continues, "but who are genuinely committed to practicing and being part of the team."

Sidebar: Parent Help

When the boys' and girls' cross country squads at Green Hope High School in Cary, N.C., started to expand by leaps and bounds--it now regularly boasts over 200 members--Head Coach Michael Miragliuolo realized he needed some extra help with the logistics. So he turned to the athletes' parents. He now has a system for pulling in parents and keeping them connected that works year in and out.

"Things that aren't a big deal for smaller teams--like bringing sports drinks to races--became a huge deal for our team," Miragliuolo says. "It takes two SUVs to haul enough drinks to a meet. There is no way I could take care of all this myself, so I had to figure out a way to engage our team parents."

What worked for Miragliuolo was to create a very organized hierarchy for his parent volunteers. "I have one overall team parent who oversees the rest of the parent volunteers," he explains. "Under them are several lead parents who are each responsible for one main area, like bringing drinks to races, bringing wet towels to races, organizing fans on the race course, organizing pasta dinners, and planning transportation to races."

People are designated for the lead positions at the first parent meeting of the year. "Each of them is responsible for recruiting others to help them do their job, and every parent on the team is asked to sign up to help with at least one thing during the season," Miragliuolo says. "The leaders begin filling their rosters of helpers right away at that first meeting.

"It works because it's an organized structure," he continues. "Everyone knows exactly what their job is and has someone above them to go to if they need help. The head team parent communicates directly with me, and I also keep in contact with the person in charge of each main area to make sure we have everything covered."

As the season goes on, Miragliuolo communicates frequently with his volunteers. "I have a massive e-mail list and I write to the parents at least twice a week," he says. "Sometimes, I include motivational notes to let everyone know how much I appreciate them and what a great job they're doing. We also started a Facebook page to help us stay connected."

How does he get so many parents to step up to the plate? "I think the biggest reason our parents are willing to work hard is that they truly feel part of the team," Miragliuolo says. "I make sure they know that no matter how small their task is, it's critical to our success as a unit. There's a lot of pride in that, and it makes parents want to keep contributing."

The system is definitely working. "After races, I always say I feel like I didn't do anything," Miragliuolo says. "I show up and the parents have everything organized and running smoothly. It's fantastic."



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