Ask the Coach: “I Didn’t Make Varsity. Now What?”
A young baller just had his dreams casually crushed. UNC’s Courtney Banghart feels his pain — and has some simple advice.
Ask the Coach is an advice column to help you keep your mind in the game.
I’ve always been the best player on the court. Like, any court. Whenever I played pickup in the park or varsity for my old school, I was leading the charge. That is, until my family moved. At my new high school’s varsity basketball tryouts, everyone else on the floor was quicker, stronger and just better. I felt totally exposed, and sure enough, I didn’t make the cut. I was offered a spot on JV, but I’m really afraid I’ve hit my ceiling. If I’m not playing with the best, can I still become the best?
Simply “OK” Suddenly
16-year-old basketball player
I’ve been there, SOS. I mean that very specifically — just like you, I got left off a team I knew I deserved to be on. Of course, a lot of people have been there. So why does it hurt so much worse for people like you and me?
On my end, I can tell you that sport was everything for me growing up. My first word wasn’t “mom” or “dad,” it was “ball.” No joke. I’m from a small town in New Hampshire where everybody played every sport, because otherwise you wouldn’t be able to fill the teams. I was the kind of kid who got home from soccer practice and started shooting hoops with my shin guards still on. There might have been some skateboarding, ice hockey and figure skating in the mix too.
Soccer was my first love, though, and my first heartbreak.
When I was 9 years old, I tried out for the U12 soccer team. My own school team had been the best in the state, so I was used to winning. I felt sure I would make the U12. I didn’t make the U12. At first, I couldn’t believe it. This had never happened to me before. What I had to offer just wasn’t enough. I wasn’t needed. The coach told my parents that I had a ton of promise but was way too small. My parents tried to soothe me. Nothing helped; I was mortified.
So how did I get over it? Well, maybe I didn’t, since I’m talking about it with you! But I did keep playing, because when it came down to it, I didn’t have any other choice. This is going to sound dramatic, but here it goes: Sport has always been the way that I connect to the world. It’s all I’ve ever known. So there was no way I was going to quit. And if I can judge your character based on a 100-word email, you’re in the same boat.
You hear about a lot of top-tier players using this kind of slight as fuel to come back even better, which is fine by me. I’m all for a good old-fashioned sports revenge story. There was one kid I used to coach, the lowest-ranked player in her incoming class. She wrote that rank on her whiteboard as a reminder. She looked at the number every day. She set her focus on proving it wrong. And she ended up playing the most minutes of anyone on the entire team — as a freshman. So that’s one approach that didn’t turn out too badly.
Here’s another: Take a crack at changing your personal definition of “best.” After all, there are a lot of different qualities that make a great player. There are pure physical gifts, sure. There’s also the support you can bring to a team, the glue that improves your collective culture. And then there’s grit. That’s your willingness to keep on grinding, to keep on improving, no matter what. That one is always in your control. And it’s your best barometer for how good you’re going to be.
Take a crack at changing your personal definition of “best.” After all, there are a lot of different qualities that make a great player.
It’s grit that’ll motivate you to take a long, hard look at how you can up your game and set a series of clear goals to get there. Ask yourself questions to help identify those goals. Write the goals down and break them up into steps. Just be sure that they’re in your control. Making varsity? Not in your control. Improving your long-distance shooting or your help defense? Totally doable.
So how do you let go of the things you can’t control? For you, the name of the game is “compete, don’t compare.” That’s pretty hard to do when we’re all steeped in social media and living in a world of constant comparison that sometimes seems like it’s designed to tear us down. But when you put energy into comparing yourself to those varsity contenders, you’re taking energy away from competing with them. Even if you have no control over their game, you have all the control over yours.
In fact, everything I’ve asked you to do is totally within your control: Use your disappointment for motivation, redefine “best” to mean “hardest-working,” make a series of attainable goals, stop worrying about the Joneses, and focus on killing it in JV. It’s a powerful feeling to know you’ve got all the tools you need to succeed. Now you just have to reach out and grab them.
Courtney Banghart is the head women’s basketball coach at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Previously head coach at Princeton, she was named the 2015 Naismith National Coach of the Year and served as an assistant coach for the 2017 USA Basketball Women’s U23 National Team. A leading player at Dartmouth, Banghart set the as yet unbroken Ivy League record for career three-pointers. She serves on the board of directors for the Women’s Basketball Coaches Association and on the NCAA Women’s Basketball Oversight Committee.
Photography: Jayson Palacio