How the best teams keep filling their roster every year

The ultimate guide for creating a never-ending flow of highly engaged players into your program year after year.

I felt like a failure.

I played lots of sports growing up, but wrestling was where I excelled. It became my passion. And my passion lead to a job coaching the varsity wrestling team at my old high school. I was 23 years old, recently out of college, and couldn’t be more excited to start leading young men to victory on the mats.

Then reality punched me in the face and broke my nose.

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I inherited a varsity wrestling team with eight kids. Eight kids don’t help you much when we have 15 different weight classes in New York State. As a clueless first-year coach, I figured our roster numbers were the least of my concerns. Our team hadn’t won a match in a long time, our skills were terrible, our conditioning atrocious, our knowledge of the rules was even questionable.

My first year coaching

What the hell, though, I figured? I knew wrestling. I’m sure this coaching thing would be no problem. I’d use the lessons I learned as an athlete to make our program successful - I’d roll up my sleeves, dig in and get to work.

It didn’t take long to realize you can develop your athletes as much as you want, but if you don’t have enough kids to play the game, you’re dead in the water before you even start.

Needless to say, I had my work cut out for me.

I was ready to teach and motivate and build champions, but suddenly I realize I’m responsible for somehow finding kids just to join the team. No one ever taught me how to do that.

For the life of me I couldn’t figure out how to get more kids on our team. I really felt like a failure. I was frustrated and didn’t know what to do.

So I just tried anything I could think of. I made flyers. I asked our kids to bring their friends. I even started asking random kids I saw in the hallway to join the team. None of it seemed to help much.

It’s not much fun coaching a team that can’t even put together a full line-up.

There was a lot of trial and error. And some more trial. And some more error.

Finally I started figuring some things out.

Over the next few years our numbers grew bit by bit. The problem was, though, every year I felt I was right back where I started. My back was against the wall after our previous class of seniors graduated and I was staring down the barrel of another season with not enough kids and not enough wins for my “competitive sensibilities,” hoping we could entice enough new kids to come out for the team.

Like most schools in our area, we had a middle school team but I had little involvement there. The varsity team, I figured, was my exclusive province (we didn’t have a JV team) and our middle school team was the business of our middle school coaches. I didn’t pay them much attention.

I was relying on our middle school coaches to fill up their roster with kids and send me up a full and well-prepared class of freshmen each year. I figured it would just happen. Why not? That’s how it seemed to work when I was in high school.

Boy was I wrong.

I’ve had dozens and dozens of conversations with high school coaches of every sport, all around the country, so I know I’m not alone. I’ve heard it again and again:

“I’m scratching my head about why our numbers dropped."
“I’m good with the ‘x’s and o’s' but how do I get kids into the program?"
“We’re a football school. I just can’t get kids to come out for basketball."
“We’re a basketball school. I just can’t get kids to come out for baseball."

Well, my friends, it’s time to face the music. You’re the varsity head coach. You’re the CEO of your program. As they say, “the buck stops here."

The reality is that your middle school team, or whatever feeder program you might have, is the backbone of your program for roster numbers. The strategy of trying to grow your roster by recruiting high school kids will always just be a band-aid fix for the problem, not a permanent solution.

Short on time?

  • Check out our Middle School Recruitment and Retention Playbook right now.
  • Dozens of proven strategies at your fingertips to grow your numbers today.

The Lost Level

For so many of us, middle school is truly the “lost level” of athletics. In many towns, there’s a lot of money and time invested by families into youth sports. Between club teams, travel teams or private coaching, the youth sports “business" seems to be firing on all cylinders (for better or for worse). At the high school level in most districts the best trained, most experienced coaches are working with the varsity teams.

Despite the best efforts of many hard-working and well-meaning, but less experienced coaches, middle school teams often get the short end of the stick as far as attention. They are school-based teams, so they don’t have the parental resources being thrown at them like the younger kids do. And even though there are many hard-working coaches at this level, they are generally less experienced than their high school counterparts. Many middle school teams also don’t have the budget that high school teams do for competitions, transportation and equipment. Combine all these factors and it can create a less-than-optimal experience at this level.

This is a critical age, however, where, tragically, many kids end up leaving sports altogether. Some studies say up to 70% of kids quit sports by the age of 13.

It’s time to stop living in denial!

So let’s take a look at your “feeder program”:

  • How many athletes do you have per grade? How does this compare to your high school team?
  • How have the total numbers in your feeder program been historically? Are they flat or do they seem to be trending upward or downward over the past few seasons?
  • What percentage of these kids are continuing to play at the high school level year-to-year?

It doesn’t take a med school degree to diagnose your program’s health!

Here’s a real life example:

I coach a high school wrestling team and we carry ninth through twelfth graders on our roster (we have no JV team). My optimal roster size is 30-35 kids. This number will be different for everyone, but you should make this decision for yourself based on your sport, your coaching staff, your facilities and most importantly your ability to provide a high-quality experience.

Let’s call it 32 kids.

So that means, we need to average 8 kids per grade-level. There’s always going to be some degree of attrition from middle school to high school so we need to factor that in as well. We know from prior experience we need about 10 kids per grade level on our middle school team to yield 8 kids per grade-level on our high school team. That means my target roster number for my middle school team (which is grades 7 and 8) is 20 kids or 10 per grade.

Obviously this doesn’t account for any high school kids that come out for the team that weren’t on our middle school team, but again, like we talked about earlier, I don’t want to count on these kids. I want them to be a bonus!

Historically we haven't had that many kids on our middle school team, but our numbers have been trending up. Over the last three season our middle school roster size has been 14, 16 and then 20 this past winter.

So there are the numbers. What do they mean?

It seems we were falling a bit short in the past but are just now hopefully getting to the point where our middle school roster can help sustain our high school roster. This is the same type of analysis every high school coach should be doing with their own feeder program.

The three “R’s" of Roster Building

What all of this really breaks down to though are three factors I like to call “The three R’s of Roster Building”:

Each plays a vital role in your success and each needs to be considered in it’s own right. Let’s go through them quickly.

Reality

We’re going to start with “reality" before we move on to “recruitment” and “retention,” and then we’re going to circle back to "reality" again at the end.

The first reality we need to wrap our heads around is why middle schoolers participate in sports in the first place. While these teams are feeders for our high school programs, we can’t ever forget that kids in this age group have just as many similarities to youth-level athletes as they do to high schoolers. We can’t just treat them like mini adults!

So what is the reality about why middle school kids play sports?


  • Many studies have shown the number one reason kids play sports even at the middle school level is to have fun.
  • Similarly, lack of fun is the leading reason kids quit sports!
  • Kids want to be able to “hang out” with their friends and have a social aspect as part of their activities. When considering the decision to participate the “are my friends doing this?” question is an important one!
  • Kids are working to create identities for themselves, and being part of a team or belonging to a group are a big part of that at this age.
  • Kids play so they can “play.” A lack of playing time is the quickest route to a loss of fun!
  • Kids associate fun with success. They’ll ask themselves: “Am I good at this?” Here’s the important thing, though, success doesn’t have to mean competitive success - that’s not something every kid can have, at least not right away. Framing success as improvement is so important here!

What kids don’t talk about is winning. They don’t talk about being on a successful team as a reason for wanting to play. And they also don't talk about things like developing character, work ethic, perseverance or how the sport will benefit them for life (although those are certainly reasons their parents would like them to participate, and qualities they’ll benefit from later in life!).

If we want to get kids fired up about joining a team or staying on a team we need to start connecting with them on their level and not trying to sell them on “adult” factors!

So start right now. Start by looking at your middle school program through your kids’ eyes:

  • How can you shape your program to meet these desires?
  • What can you offer adolescents to satisfy these motivations?

Everything you do as part of your recruitment and retention efforts should be seen through this new lens of “reality”!

Recruitment

Ok, so let’s define recruitment. For our purposes, recruitment is simply the act of getting kids in the school to come out for your team. Your recruitment dictates how many kids you’ll have on your middle school team.

Cool?

Here’s the most important thing to understand:

We could write a whole book on recruitment tactics (and maybe we will at some point!) but all the tactics in the world will have very little effect if you don’t first understand the key strategies behind the various tactics, why they work and when and how to apply them. I’ll give you the “Big 4” right now to get you thinking!

Use a smaller net

Here’s one that might seem a little counterintuitive but is so important to realize: Stop trying to get every kid in the school out for your team! It’s easy to get caught up in the tactics of trying to appeal to the masses. Let’s take a page out of a playbook from the marketing world: if you try to appeal to everyone, you’ll appeal to no one! Be smart and strategic using targeted recruiting.

What does that mean?

Well, you’ve got to use your head as to how that applies to your specific situation. For example, go after the “peer influencers” in the school - or as others call them, the popular kids! We already know kids join sports to fit in, to belong, and to spend time with their friends. Get one or two peer influencers on your team and watch as other kids follow suit!

That’s not all! Look for untapped resources: talk to your school's Phys Ed teachers and ask them for recommendations! These are just a couple of tactics to get you thinking, but what’s important is understanding the strategy.

Need more strategies for an even greater impact? Get our Middle School Recruitment & Retention Playbook right now to build your roster today, and for many more ideas you can implement now to increase your numbers!

Appeal to their interests

The important questions to ask yourself here are the “what” and the “how.”

“What” is exactly what we talked about in the reality section above: What are the reasons a kid would want to join your team? You’ve got some idea now, so go ahead and list them out.

“How” is where you get to be creative. How can you get this message out to the kids you're trying to reach?

So now let’s think outside the box a bit. If your answer to “how” is to hang up some flyers around the school, don’t expect any miracles. Hey, you’re a coach so you should know better than most: mediocre efforts lead to mediocre results!

There’s a lot of activities and sports out there for kids to choose from, how do you cut through the clutter and differentiate your program?

Here are a couple of ideas to get you started:

Film your practice, edit it down to a short 30-90 second piece that shows off the qualities you're trying to relate to the kids you want recruit: things like fun and camaraderie.

Not good with this sort of thing?

Neither was I! The best advice I can give you is: Figure it out!

Today’s computer software makes it easy and we’re not looking for Academy Awards here, just making it good enough to get your point across! Still no dice? I bet you know someone who can do this for you! Another coach, a parent, a teacher in the school, a kid on your team. Make it happen!

Another great tactic here is to have an "open house"!

Sports are fun - let kids see how much fun they can be! Have an afternoon before your pre-season starts where you open up your facility to any interested kid in the school. Have your current team members each bring 3 friends and watch the magic happen! Here’s the key though, have only as much structure as you need to provide an optimal experience. No drilling, no skill building, just facilitated free play! Interact however you need to to maximize inclusion and fun for all the kids there!

The Parental Partnership

As much as some coaches would prefer to interact with parents as little as possible, realize that parents can be your single biggest ally when it comes to getting kids out for your team! Don’t expect it to just happen though. It all starts with you!

Just like you’re striving to reach the kids on their level when “selling” your sport, go out of your way to let parents know how much their child will benefit from your program. Circle back to your values and philosophy as a coach, what is important to you and what qualities do you strive to instill in the kids who come through your program.

Well… don’t just keep quiet about it - reach out to parents of prospective athletes and let them know!

Email, phone call, face-to-face meeting - it doesn’t matter, but let them know how you can help develop their son or daughter into an outstanding adult by teaching them leadership, work ethic, character and everything else that comes with a positive athletic experience!

When parents have questions be super responsive and get back to them quickly. Share stories of kids who have come through your program and have gone on to do great things. Remember: you are the single best person in the world to let parents know how valuable your program can be to their children - no one can talk about it more knowledgeably and passionately than you!

The Power of Personal contact

Interest meetings and flyers are great (and you should definitely keep using them!), but it’s the one-on-one interactions with kids that make all the difference in the world in your recruiting efforts.

Get out there and have conversations with kids, and not just one either - you might need to talk to them a few times (gasp!) to show them the value of your program and let them know what they’ll get out of it. Track them down at opportune moments - before or after school, during lunch, etc. - or set up a time to talk to them. Let them know about the fun things they’ll be a part of, answer any questions they have and address any concerns that may come up. The most common concerns I get are about time commitment and the difficulty of learning a potentially new sport.

Remember, kids at this age group seek to have meaningful relationships with adults. Leverage that to your advantage and show potential players that you care!

Retention

So if Recruitment is getting kids to come out for your middle school team, Retention is getting them to finish out the entire season and come back next year. Each, on it's own, is only half the battle. If you want kids to stick around, you need to remember what you learned in the “Reality” section above and create an awesome experience for them. Let’s talk about a few way you can make that happen.

Team Building

Want kids to love coming to practice so much that there’s no doubt they'll be part of your program for years to come? Have a focus on team bonding and team building and watch your kids stick together through graduation.

There are literally hundreds of things you can do to foster this type of atmosphere and we’ll talk about them more in future posts. Sign-up here to make sure you get them when they’re published!

It’s time to get creative again. Some easy solutions are scheduling team activities outside of practice (dinners, movie nights, bowling night, etc.) and in-practice activities that involve kids sharing about themselves. I know this sounds cheesy and, believe me, I was very skeptical of this kind of thing, but, I’ll tell you doing it once a week throughout the season gives us awesome results each year!

The easiest way to do this is to form up in a circle and go around the team having each team member (starting with you, Coach!) share something on the topic of the day. Some examples to get you thinking:

  • Why do you love this sport?
  • What’s your favorite thing to do outside of sports?

Another great program to look into here is Lead ‘Em Up, which features a games-based approach to team building as well as leadership and character development.

Framing Success

This is deceptively effective. Kids take their cues from you. If you focus on winning and losing, kids will focus on winning and losing.

Duh.

Here’s the thing though, no matter your sport, in every competition, there’s always a loser. Losing happens and, for a lot of kids, more than they’d like it to. If this is how your kids are defining success then they’re not gonna be happy campers and happy campers are exactly what we need to ensure they stay in our program for a long time to come!

So, what’s the alternative?

The alternative is going out of your way to define success as improvement. Improvement comes in many flavors: improved skills, better conditioning, more mental toughness or a winning attitude. The important thing here though is the realization that, by default, kids will gauge success based on winning and losing unless you consistently, repeatedly and intentionally remind them that your program defines success differently. This's a nice way to say you need to reprogram them to change their frame of reference.

Be very careful with the words you use with them in regards to winning and losing, whether you discuss it at all and go out of your way to point out and compliment improvements wherever you see them. Kids notice.

Sprinkle the fun throughout

We talked earlier about how kids are motivated by fun, well now it’s time to start making that a part of your program and your daily routine. Alright, I get it, practice can’t be all fun and games… you have drills and skills you need to work on! But leveraging opportune moments and being creative with your practice planning can make all the difference as far as your kids' enjoyment.

Two great times you can integrate this sort of thing into your practices are during warm-ups and during conditioning activities at the end of your practice.

Can you integrate cross-training type games? Relay races? Group competitions? Get creative and make it happen!

Another great alternative is to let your seniors or team leaders run this part of practice. My suggestion would be to let them know a day or two ahead of time, give them some examples of what’s appropriate or inappropriate and have them clear their ideas with you before you actually do it.

Finally, put some thought into how you can change up or vary some of the more monotonous skill drills you use regularly. Can you turn it into some kind of game or competition? This always works really well!

Most importantly, be positive, upbeat and enthusiastic. Remember how we said kids take their cues from you? Well this is no different. If you’re having fun with it, most likely they are too!

Smaller is better

Kids play sports to play sports.

Wait...what?

I meant exactly what I said. Kids play sports to play sports. They don’t play sports to stand around and they don’t play sport to watch other kids play sports. Common sense, right?

So what can we do with this insightful tidbit of knowledge? Well, we can internalize it and use it to shape the way we plan our practices and schedule our competitions. To the best of our abilities and depending on our sport, we should always be seeking out ways to use smaller groups in practice activities, minimize down time for our players and focus on maximizing the number of “touches” they get on any given day.

Futsal is the classic example of this. For those not in the soccer world, Futsal is basically a mini-version of soccer with 5 players per side and a smaller pitch. What it’s doing, though, is condensing the game, creating more action and giving each player more touches. More action, more repetitions and more touches equals more development. More development equals more success. More success equals more fun. AND…more fun equals much greater retention!

How else can you implement this concept in your practices?

Think about drills you do where only a few players are active and the rest are watching. How can you get more players involved? Run several versions of the drill simultaneously? Have stations where other kids are doing other drills at the same time and each group rotates from station to station? Use smaller group scrimmages to get more players more involved? Think about it and start working into your practice plans today!

Competition is no different. We all have varying levels of control over our competition schedule and differing philosophies on playing time. There is no right or wrong answer here - it depends on your goals. I will say this, though, if your goal at the middle school level is to maximize development of the all the players you carry on your roster and to maximize the number of players who go on to compete at the varsity level, I’d strongly consider ensuring that every kid on your team gets adequate playing time. How much is up to you. I’m certainly not saying everyone gets the same amount, but as a general guideline I’d suggest each player gets to play a minimum of one-third of your competition.

Will you sacrifice some wins with this policy?

Possibly. But remember this:

  • We're framing success as development, not wins and losses - this practice just reinforces that and further motivates players to improve.
  • If we’re keeping a kid on our roster, our goal is probably to get him to the next level. Getting him a decent amount of playing time is an important part of accomplishing that goal.

Game play doesn’t just come from your competition schedule either. Set up scrimmages or “play days” with other schools to really maximize this experience for all your players.

Another Dose of Reality

Alright, I told you we’d circle back to reality and here we are.

What ties all of this together?

In a word: Attitude, attitude, attitude...

I’m not talking about your players’ attitudes though. I’m talking about your attitude as a coach.

If you take one thing away from this article make it this: your mindset and attitude as a coach towards these issues is everything. It’s what makes these strategies and tactics work.

It’s very easy to sit here and read this article and have one or both of these thoughts going through your head:

  • “This is great! I should totally do this stuff!"… days go by...then weeks, and you’ve taken no concrete actions to make this happen. I’ve definitely been there myself. I think we all have. OR...
  • “This stuff is great, but it will never work for me in my program because…” I’ve definitely been there too!

Here’s where I’m going with this, and this is the second set of “realities” we all need to face:

  • High performers, whether in coaching, business, academics or any other endeavor, are action-biased. They’re the ones who read something and immediately take the first concrete step or action, whatever that might be, to implementing the advice they’ve received. You could get the best advice in the world from the smartest people in the world, but, if you don’t do anything with it, it’s essentially worthless!
  • Everyone’s situation is a little bit different, but no one’s program is totally unique. These are time-tested concepts that work in any situation. They key is your mindset. Don’t start thinking: “This will never work for me.” Instead force yourself to have the mindset: “I know this is a solid concept. How can I tweak it to make it work in my situation?” The answer is right before your eyes - you just need to do the work required to see it!

The Big Challenge

So there you have it: a complete framework and strategies you can start using today to fill up your middle school or feeder team’s roster with eager players excited to advance to the next level!

There’s obviously a lot to digest here.

My suggestion to you is to really start by internalizing the realities surrounding the true motivators of adolescent athletes and the mindset of success used by the best coaches in the world. From there, I think you’ll see the pieces really start to fall into place.

To get you started on the right foot, here’s my big challenge to you: Let’s add in some accountability and action-taking right now to get you going! In the comments below, let us know EITHER:

  • What is the one concrete action you will take in the next few days to start making a positive change in your recruitment and retention?
  • How will you tweak one of the concepts in this post to make it work for your situation and your program?

Need some help turning this framework into a reality?

Hey, no problem! Get some more recruitment and retention strategies and the actual list of tactics I use to take this framework from vision to results! Just let me know where to send it. Happy to answer any questions you have as well!

Get the full Middle School Recruitment & Retention Playbook for FREE right here.

About the Author

Pete Jacobson created WinSmarter to help coaches with the biggest frustrations we all sometimes struggle with: things like building a strong culture of buy-in, commitment and mental toughness, dealing with difficult parents, recruiting more kids into your program and much more.

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