Coaches Corner: What to Consider When Bringing Up Freshman Players to Varsity
It is the first week of practice and you finally get to see your kids compete against each other. One or more of your freshman seems to be playing well by being a better ball handler, shooter or defender. The first inclination is to bring her up and let her start to play right away. But is that truly the best decision for her and your team?
In my 21 years as a varsity coach, I have brought up one or more freshmen at the start of the season nine times. I have added them to our team in the middle of the season five times. Seven times I have brought up someone at the end of the season and five times I have not brought up any freshman during the year. Some of these proved to be the right decisions while others did not meet the results I was expecting.
The first thing a coach has to look at is whether the player is ready to play at that level. There is a big difference between competing in middle school against 13-14 year old players compared to a 17-18 year old girl who is getting ready for college. A player needs to have the skill, the athleticism, the strength and the mental toughness to make the jump from an 8th grade team to varsity. If she is lacking in any of these skills, it may be a tough jump for that player to make.
From an individual standpoint, the number one goal should be to get better. Guards have to be able to handle the ball. If you have a really good young point guard, you need to find a way to get her time with the ball at some level. I don’t like to bring up younger guards unless I know they are going to play a decent amount of minutes. Post players can be a little different. I feel they will develop more against the older and stronger girls. Competing against them every day in practice will make them better. They may not get the game time as much if we kept them down, but we feel we have had more success with this approach. Guards, on the other hand, we feel have developed better when they get to handle a lot in practice and games.
Now I have to thank WIAA for making two changes that really help in giving younger kids quality minutes. The two 18 minute half rule gave us an extra 20 minutes of playing time. That should allow extra time to play a few more players. The new rule for this year, which allows a player to play three halves a night, is also going to help. A kid who maybe only played a few minutes in each half can now play more in the JV game and it also allows the same kid to be saved for the end of a varsity game to gain some varsity experience.
Communication is really important if you do bring up younger players. The younger player needs to understand what the expectations are going to be. Not everything will be easy and they will have to earn playing time with hard work and commitment. If they are expecting to come up and do not, you will also have to explain that the decision is what is best for them at this time.
Communicating with your older players is also important. They need to understand why you are bringing someone up and how it can help the team. Players should want players that will make the team better. Sometimes players will not be as happy as we are with the decision. In these situations, which I have been part of, it is important to let the players and team know that you are just trying to put the best team you possibly can together. Anyone who is part of your school can be part of the team and everyone should feel like she should play at the level that fits her talent. The best teams I have coached have accepted these decisions. The teams that have underachieved usually have problems with these decisions. Each game is different, and every match up is different. Every week is different.
For the older players out there; don’t complain, compete. It will make you and your team better. Some of the players I am most proud of in our program had to change their roles. Some of them were all-conference level players. All of those players will tell you that they would trade their individual success for the success of the team.
Here are some situations that I have dealt with in my coaching career. Some I feel I handled well, while others I wish I would have handled differently.
One year, while I was coaching at Hustisford, we had a really good group of four seniors. We lost our starting center to an ACL injury during volleyball season who would have been a junior. I talked to our four seniors and said we need a few more players that could help us win. We brought up two freshman who rotated starting spots. We won conference and our first regional championship in 17 years with a six player rotation. I really didn’t have much choice that year, and I really wanted our senior group to have a special season. For those two freshman, it really helped them as they went on to have great careers. They were part of a competitive team and it helped them keep that high level of play their following years.
My first year in Beaver Dam, I was trying to find players that played the way I wanted. I wanted to win right away and I brought too many kids up too soon. We suffered through a 4-17, 0-21 and 5-16 season. I wish I would have kept some of those kids down to learn how to win on the JV or freshman level. I still feel they were the best players, but I wish I would have seen that they would have been able to grow more at the JV level. For that group staying down would have been a better choice.
Another year, I had an amazing group of freshman coming in. Learning from a few years before, I kept them down to play JV and then brought them up the 2nd half of the varsity season. We were still trying to find our identity on varsity. I also had concerns whether they could handle the physical nature of a full varsity season. The JV team went undefeated and they helped turn the varsity program around when I brought them up after Christmas. We had our first winning season and they were the leaders that helped us build a successful program for many seasons.
A few years ago we had a good team going into the season, but we had a crazy amount of injuries losing three starters for the season and another one missed half the season. We had a lot of holes on our team and we brought some players up to help us. They were all good players and looked like they had a great future. When everyone was healthy the following year and with a new group of quality freshman coming in, we did not have as much room on varsity and many of them quit playing during high school. I think their feeling was that if they played varsity one year then they should play the next year. We gave some minutes on JV but it did not keep those players happy. We really did not have a lot of options the year I brought them up, but I did feel bad for those players because they probably were not ready for varsity competition and it hurt their development.
Since I have been at Beaver Dam (2005), nine of the 16 freshman I have brought up (through the graduating class of 2017) have been on one of the all-conference teams. Of the other seven, four were regular starters and three left to focus on other sports. We have had eight different kids that have been 1st team all-conference. Four were brought up right away, one was mid-season, one was at the end of season, and two played either JV or on the freshman team for the entire year. Of those eight I feel pretty good that we did the right thing. It also shows that there are different paths to success and that each year a player can improve at different levels. For the kids that we brought up and did not have as much success, I wish I would have had better foresight.
Parents should remember that every situation is different. Just because it worked one way one year does not necessarily mean the same for the next year. Every program and every team is different. The most important thing is where your daughter is going to improve the most. Coaches are concerned for her development as we want to see success for every player in our program. We are not infallible as coaches. We do what we believe is best for the individual and the team.
Players need to remember these can be tough situations whether you get brought up or not. Just because you get brought up right away does not mean you are destined for greatness. You need to work even harder consistently to prove you belong. Conversely, if you don’t get brought up right away, you can still have an amazing career and season. Because of the length of the basketball season you may even be able to make a difference during that season. I recently talked to a coach who told me about a girl who started the year on JV and by the end of the year she was a starter playing at state. Just do your best every day and when you get your chance, make the most of the situation you are in. It always comes down to your love and passion for the game. Don’t get too down about decisions you can’t control. Play harder, play smarter and get better. That is what you can control.
As a coach you have to look at two things: Team success and player development. They are both important and you should want both. It is not always an easy decision. It is something we all deal with as coaches. My basic guideline now is if the player is going to help us immediately and where are they going to develop the most. If you are in a struggling program, bringing someone up may not always be the best decision. It depends on the make-up of your team and where that player can fit in. We as coaches do have situations though where we don’t have options and that sometimes dictates our choices. Just make sure you look at the positives and negatives of bringing someone up. The mistakes I have made bringing kids up too early are easily some of the most regrettable moments I have as a coach. But when they come up and give you a spark and make your team better, as our freshman have the last three years, you are glad you made that decision.
Written by Beaver Dam girls basketball coach Tim Chase, who has coached for more than 20 years.