This is the tenth in a series of posts on Professionalism in Coaching. Throughout the series, I have covered a variety of topics dealing with how coaches must handle themselves in a professional manner. If you have not seen the other posts, go back to the Blog Page to read them.

The last few posts have focused on maintaining our professionalism while dealing with playing time issues at various levels. Today, I will finish the playing time discussion by offering some ideas on navigating something all coaches hate to do—Cuts.

The majority of this post comes from my book, Playing Time, in which I discuss most of the things I have written about in the last few posts as well as this one. You can purchase Playing Time on the Shop page here on the SlamDunk Success site.

For those of you unfamiliar with the term “cut” as it relates to sports, it is about squad selection. Cutting a kid means a coach terminates a potential player’s involvement with the team.

Cuts most often occur at the high school level, but at larger middle schools, you may have to make cuts as well. Amazingly enough (in my opinion), some teams of even younger kids make cuts, too.

While the last few posts in this series have been about playing time, I think it’s important that we also discuss cutting kids, for cuts are the ultimate form of determining playing time. A kid who gets cut will get NO playing time at all, so we need to discuss cuts as a finish to a discussion on playing time.

We also need to discuss cutting kids because it is a situation that demands the utmost professionalism from coaches. Yet, all too often, we hear of coaches not handling it professionally.

The Worst (& Sometimes Best) Thing We Do

For years I have said that cutting kids is the worst thing coaches have to do. It is the worst thing we do because it is never easy telling someone they are not good enough to be a part of something.

The tears that I have seen come flowing out of athletes’ eyes during cuts have ripped me apart. There is nothing fun about the experience of cuts. It is something you never get used to, and you never enjoy.

I hate cutting kids more than anything I do as a coach.

On the flip-side, I have also said that cutting kids is one of the best things we do.

What?! Did you just say cutting kids is one of the best things you do?”

Yes, I did.

I do not mean it is the best-feeling thing we do.

What I mean is that, sometimes, the best thing that can happen to a program is to get rid of the bad apples in it.

One way that happens is by cutting kids.

Cuts are terrible when cutting kids who have little talent but who work hard and do everything asked of them. 

However, cuts are beneficial to the development of a team and program when you cut attitude problems and players without the discipline and commitment to the team necessary for success.

These players are destined to cause problems throughout the season if you keep them, and you are better off cutting them loose right from the start.

Also, cuts force kids to work harder because they know that there is a chance that they may not make the team. Cuts force many kids to put more time into their game during the off-season.

So cuts can be a good thing to motivate players to do what they need to do to help create success for a program.

Cuts are also a necessary evil when you have too many kids come out for the team. It is a great problem to have because it shows that a lot of people want to be part of what you are doing.

But at some point you have to say, “Enough is enough. There aren’t enough spots on the team or in the program to allow everyone an opportunity to play and develop in the best manner for the success of our program.”

A Big Dilemma

Here is where one of the biggest dilemmas about cutting kids comes up.

Do you keep the senior who is not good enough to play very much on the varsity, but who has done everything asked of her, works hard, and has a great attitude?

I have normally kept this player, but I have done so with the following caveat.

I tell the player that we want her to be part of the program because she does everything the way we want it done. We love her work ethic and attitude. I then tell her that she probably won’t get very many minutes of playing time because she is behind other players.

I ask her if she can handle this without becoming a problem. If she can, great! We want her in the program. If she can’t, then she needs to quit or tell me to cut her, and there will be no hard feelings on our part.

Invariably, most players say they just want to be on the team, and they won’t be a problem. And for the most part, it works out okay.

However, I have had enough of these “great kids” become problems as the season wore on or whose parents became a problem, that I started to believe maybe it is best to just cut them.

But I hate that!

These are great kids who can teach younger players a lot about what it means to do things the right way being part of a team. I want them there.

They think they want to be there, too. 

Unfortunately, when they don’t play very much, they often sour on the concept. They become something that they weren’t before. They are not acting the way we want players in our program acting, and they are not showing younger players the right thing.

When this happens, they have become another attitude problem that I wish I would have cut.

There is no tried and true formula on this situation. Coaches just have to figure this out on a case-by-case basis, and hope that they have made the right decision.

The key is that we always try to err on the side of what is best for the team and for the individual kids.

While I started leaning towards getting rid of those players years ago, the pendulum has swung back.

Now, I keep those players.

The key, though, is I make sure we have the conversation where I let them know exactly where they stand, why we want them on the team, and what they need to do to stay on the team throughout the season.

I would rather have them with us than not because they can contribute to the program and the program can contribute to their school and sport experience.

It Can Get Ugly at Times

Unfortunately, there are “horror stories” that most coaches have been through in some of these instances. I will talk about one that grew ugly in a hurry.

One year when I was an athletic director, we had a player in one of our programs who fell into the category just described – senior, great kid, limited ability, not getting many minutes.

The coach kept him and was up-front with him, letting him know that he would get limited minutes.

The coach told him he wished he could get him more minutes because he does everything the way the coach wanted it done, but the player just lacked the skills necessary to get a lot of playing time.

Half-way through the season, the player’s parents called for a meeting, and we – player, parents, coach, and me – all sat down to talk about it.

It was the worst parent meeting I ever experienced in 30+ years of coaching. Heated exchanges between the parent and coach led to the parent saying, “Then why don’t you just cut him?”

The coach said he didn’t want to cut him, that he was one of the players who came off the bench that helped the team a lot, and that the coach needed him and liked having him on the team.

He said the player also did everything asked of him, and the coach didn’t want to cut him.

The dad said that the coach was just afraid to cut him, didn’t have the guts to do it.

While that may be the case in some instances, in this instance it couldn’t have been further from the truth.

Why would we cut someone who comes to practice every day, works hard, gets good grades, maintains a good attitude, and pushes the players in front of him? We need and want those players.

It’s just that those players need to be able to handle that role, or else they will struggle. We are not going to cut those kids unless they stop handling that role properly.

Unfortunately, that meeting then devolved into a lot of yelling between the dad and the coach and a lot of tears from the player. Neither the dad nor the coach handled himself professionally. 

Afterward, the coach admitted that to me, but by then it was too late to do much about it. While the coach was right in everything he said, he let his emotions get the best of him. He realized too late that even though the parent handled himself unprofessionally, that was no excuse for the coach to do so.

We are human, coaches. We will make mistakes. But we must work to not let the emotions of the moment overtake us and influence us to not act professionally.

A Powerful Weapon

One final point about cuts:

Coaches, you have what can be viewed as a powerful weapon when it comes to playing time and cuts.

Make sure that you wield it with grace and dignity, and always err on the side of what is right for kids.

Do not take this power lightly and do not use it to hurt others.

Be careful. You hold a young person’s livelihood and an entire program’s success in your hands.

Treat this power properly.

As you consider all the scenarios in which you need to handle yourself professionally, keep in mind that dealing with playing time issues and cuts is as important an area as any you will deal with.

Keep your cool, handle yourself with class & dignity, and always do the right thing.

Come to think of it, as a professional, you should do those things in every aspect of your life.

Next week, I will finish this Professionalism in Coaching series by talking about what is probably the most important element of all to learn to help one be a professional—Communication.